A recent report by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information has ruled that, “there is no convincing evidence for the exclusion of universities and higher education institutions from the scope of the [Freedom of Information] Act.” This means that recent calls from Oxford University alongside other Russell Group Universities for an exemption from the act now seem unlikely to make further headway.
Representatives of the Russell Group stated in the report, “In this new market environment, universities and alternative providers are in competition for the same students and the same private-sector partnerships to augment their educational offering.”
The Russell Group were joined in their calls for reform of the application of the act by the “oral evidence” of representatives from the pressure group, Universities UK. They too argued, “At the time that the FOI legislation was introduced, we were talking about a very different sector in England. Now we are operating in a highly competitive environment, a consumer market which is now controlled very much by the Competition and Market Authority.”
However, the commission was not swayed by these arguments. Noted in the report was an understanding that “although it is correct that the environment in which our universities operate has altered significantly since the Act was going through Parliament, they continue to benefit from large sums of public money (albeit that much of this comes to them indirectly). We found the evidence that the requirements of the Act placed ‘public’ universities at a competitive disadvantage compared with wholly private providers unpersuasive.”
Over the course of the campaign for exemption, certain voices in the media have stressed the importance of the Freedom of Information Act’s application to the universities. The Guardian told the commission that an FoI request to Russell group universities regarding their sexual assault and rape policies led to, “Two front page stories on the issue, and the follow-up led to the business secretary Sajid Javid announcing that he had ordered Vice-Chancellors to look into sexual assault and sexist ‘lad culture’ on campus and best practice to deal with it.”
Defence of the act also came from activist groups, with Greenpeace noting that the act had aided their work in the past. It was observed that “Greenpeace’s latest investigation, which involved scores of freedom of information requests, found three quarters of all the funds given to Universities, were given by just two companies: Shell and BP.”
Importantly, the continued application of the Freedom of Information Act to Oxford University means that Cherwell can also carry out a more detailed level of scrutiny of the university most of its readership attends. Leading stories, such as Cherwell’s exposure of the gender gap at finals have only been possible this term as a result of the Freedom of Information Act.
A University of Oxford spokesperson told Cherwell, “Oxford University fully supports the need for universities to be transparent: we already publish more detailed information about its student body and admissions process than most other institutions.
“The Freedom of Information Act, however, imposes considerable costs on universities in terms of both time and resources, adding to the already heavy regulation of the higher education sector. The University has noted its concerns about the Act as part of its recent response to the government’s higher education Green Paper.”