Should universities be exempted from FOI?
Among the many interesting proposals for “levelling the playing field” between current HE institutions and new entrants into the sector contained in the Green Paper (and there are quite a few) one in particular caught my eye:
Public body requirements
17.There are a number of requirements placed on HEFCE-funded providers which do not apply to alternative providers. Many derive from treating HEFCE-funded providers as‘public bodies’.This is despite the fact that the income of nearly all of these providers is no longer principally from direct grant and tuition fee income is not treated as public funding. Alternative providers are not treated as public bodies. As a result there is an uneven playing field in terms of costs and responsibilities. For example, the cost to providers of being within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act is estimated at around £10m per year.
18. In principle, we want to see all higher education providers subject to the same requirements, and wherever possible we are seeking to reduce burdens and deregulate. However we may wish to consider some exceptions to this general rule if it were in the interest of students and the wider public.
For me this is a bright spot. The one thing in there which genuinely looks to be a reduction in the regulatory burden for universities. Although the rhetoric is of freeing up this and levelling that, the reality is that the Green Paper represents an extension of regulation not a reduction. With this one exception of the possible removal of universities from the terms of the FOIA. Whilst I’m not sure that the rationale for it – levelling the playing field for all providers – is really the right one in this case, it is a welcome proposal nevertheless.
Now I know that this view isn’t a popular one and that many think that the only way to hold what they believe to be otherwise secretive institutions to account is to subject them to the fair and open rigours of FOI. But really, no. Universities are not like that. They aren’t establishing shell companies in the British Virgin Isles to avoid corporation tax or Limited Liability Partnerships to avoid losses and evade scrutiny. They are fulfilling their missions, largely in the public gaze and under the scrutiny of their governing bodies, their staff, their students, internal and external auditors and all of the professional bodies and external regulators who currently assess them.
I’ve written before about some of my favourite FOI requests
and the number of them and it does feel to me that the burden of FOI on universities is quite disproportionate to any benefits. The estimate of costs quoted in the Green Paper does feel low given that many FOI requests touch many parts of a university and can have a much broader impact on a very large number of individuals.
So, I think we should welcome this particular Green Paper idea which will reduce, however marginally, the volume of regulation and will not significantly reduce universities’ accountability to their stakeholders. Universities already publish large amounts of data via the publication scheme and perhaps this could be reviewed and potentially expanded so that information on more of the most commonly raised FOI issues has to be published and updated by institutions. This would both respond to the demands for openness and reduce the burden on universities.
Relatively speaking this is a small point in the Green Paper but for me it is a welcome one and would represent at least some reduction in burden. And a hint of a silver lining really doesn’t mean that everything else proposed is going to turn out fine.