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Now That’s What I Call FoI!

Paul Greatrix has a top thirty hit parade of his favourite Freedom of Information requests ever to have come across his desk.
This article is more than 3 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Over time you may have come to realise that I’m not a fan of the Freedom of Information regulations applied to universities. This is not to say I’m against universities being required to publish information – I’d just rather it was an agreed set of requirements instead of permitting anyone to request just about anything.

FOI seems to me to be only occasionally used for purposes which might be legitimate but are much more likely to be about commercial advantage-seeking, muck-raking, avoiding serious research or pursuing individual grievances.

Significant resources are dedicated by all universities to responding to FOI requests and they often impact widely across institutions with many staff being required to check their electronic and paper files to address an FOI, no matter how pointless.

Anyway, in order to channel my enormous irritation with FOI over the years I have taken to logging all of the more distinctive FOI requests received by the University of Nottingham. What follows then is a very personal list of my all time favourite daft FOI requests. There are hundreds more where these came from but this is very much the top of the FOI pops:

1. Over 2 years, amount spent on eradication of vermin within the University plus breakdown of spend month-on-month.
2. The University’s youngest Pro-Vice-Chancellor.
3. Information on drug testing of students before exams.
4. Amount spent on art for university buildings and most expensive piece.
5. Number of Nottingham Forest tickets University receives and how they are allocated.
6. The number of complaints we have received from staff/students/visitors about haunted buildings, ghosts or other paranormal phenomena on our premises in the last 10 years, what action was taken and how much did the action cost.
7. Information relating to students and caffeinated beverages.
8. Number of examination scripts lost over 5 years plus resolutions and compensation.
9. Number of ice cleats bought over 3 years and number of accidents due to icy/snowy conditions.
10. List of people receiving honorary degrees and costs over 3 years.
11. List of installed gas appliances, categorised into heating (boilers, water heaters, dry convection systems, radiant heaters) and catering (ovens, steamers and combi ovens, hobs and grills, water and oil heaters) split by location and including output rating.
12. Over five calendar years, number of staff and students with access to printing services, number of A4 sheets printed by staff and students and amount spent on A4 printer paper.
13. Whether the main library holds copies of “As A Man Thinketh” by Ben Holden-Crowther and James Allen, number of copies and, if not held, whether the Library intends to acquire copies.
14. Pet therapy sessions: Type of animals used and how long students have access to animals.
15. Wedding statistics – number of ceremonies/receptions on campus.

And there’s more…

16. Money spent by the University on Christmas Trees, decorations and parties.
17. Shooting rights on University land: Whether or not UoN allows the driving or shooting of game on its land.
18. Number of calls made to the speaking clock and directory enquiries.
19. List of banks and amount of cash in each plus bank branches and cash machines on university premises.
20. Number of books loaned over 10 years where the title contains the word “geometry” or “geometric” and the percentage of students from each school that have loaned a book where the title contains those words.
21. Summary of the University’s position on Freemasonry amongst its students and staff.
22. Spend last year on biscuits, prosecco, wine and sweets.
23. How many requests for filming has your University had in the last five years? Please provide a list of filming locations requested. How much revenue did filming generate in that time period?
24. Whether the university has investments in cryptocurrency and, if so, details over 3 years.
25. Numbers of condoms and teabags distributed to students during Freshers’ Week and the cost.
26. Do you have any plans to deliver Student facing AI chat bot functionality?
27. Number of incidents our Security Team have attended over the last 12 months and whether we have a relevant software system in place to record and report these.” (Naturally this led me to ask if a blog might be considered a ‘relevant software system’.)
28. Number of fax machines, whether we have an on-premise fax infrastructure, number of faxes received and sent each year and cost to organisation.
29. Request for confirmation that Djanogly Library is sinking. (Reader, it isn’t.)
30. Which organisation/organisations the University does its banking with and what (if any) criteria was used in selecting the organisation/organisations the University banks with? (The answer was that we have banked with National Westminster Bank PLC since 1949 and have no records to show what criteria were used in the selection process at that time.)

A splendid selection I’m sure you will agree.

The best of the best

Chocolate – surprisingly popular


I must concede one point about FOI though. Without FOI this University would never have been asked how many chocolate bars we sold in one particular autumn term. No-one would have thought of the importance of this data to the management and effectiveness of the nation’s universities. This FOI then has it all – pointlessness, a ranking and chocolate. You may well be surprised at the results too.

NameTotal sales Sept-Dec 15
Kit Kat5472
Mars Bar4236
Kinder Bueno2621
Double Decker2224
Kit Kat Chunky1987
Yorkie Raisin and Biscuit1649

With thanks as ever to our Information Compliance team at the University of Nottingham for their tireless efforts in meeting this spectacularly enlightened piece of legislation which is in no way a distraction from the core business of higher education.

7 responses to “Now That’s What I Call FoI!

  1. I would also like the answer to 18 “Number of calls made to the speaking clock and directory enquiries”…

  2. Given the glacial speed of response to legitimate campus Trades Union FOI requests, deliberate obfuscation or incompetence is unclear most of the time, at many Universities I’m sure most administrators would love a clearly defined set of requirements, but then how would we and the tax and fee payers be able to hold our Universities to account?

    Not surprise Yorkie came bottom of the list, a trip down memory lane for some:

  3. As a former sabb at Nottingham I can confirm I made two calls to the speaking clock in the mid 2000’s to make sure we closed election nominations bang on 12noon for the SU and NUS Delegate elections. I’ve no doubt these were duly logged and declared for future vexatious, sorry I mean, important FoI requests…

  4. Thanks Paul, a fine, fun read. For Pet therapy sessions (14) I suspect the childish temptation to ‘types of pets used’ was ‘depressed ones’ but it is 7 that demands a response as I’m always amazed to see how many students have caffeinated beverages in their hands as standard these days (wasn’t like that back in our in our day etc etc.)

  5. I can’t believe that Nos 6 and 20 weren’t higher on the list! And what’s wrong with Picnics?!

  6. “6. The number of complaints we have received from staff/students/visitors about haunted buildings, ghosts or other paranormal phenomena on our premises in the last 10 years, what action was taken and how much did the action cost.”

    Depends who you called!

    The Ghostbusters charge around $5000 per ghost caught.

    Mystery Incorporated aka The Scooby Gang would probably have investigated for free but food and other expenses would soon pile up given the amount their dog eats. It turns out the night Janitor was the one responsible after all.

    The Winchester brothers may have sorted it for free but then you have the worry of unknowingly cavorting with people involved in financial fraud. I imagine a few Men of Letters graduated from Nottingham.

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