Oxford University may become exempt from Freedom of Information laws if the government’s green paper on higher education is successful.
The Russell Group of leading UK universities, together with Universities UK, which represents 133 Vice-Chancellors, has recently requested exemption from Freedom of Information (FOI) Laws following a consultation document released by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills looking into higher education reform.
The Freedom of Information Act creates a public right of access to information held by public authorities. Julio Paolitto, media relations manager for the University of Oxford, confirmed to Cherwell that, ‘‘In 2015, the University received 590 requests under the Freedom of Information Act, of which 99 were rejected.’’
Successful FOI requests submitted to the University last year disclosed, for example, such varied information as the ethnic breakdown of admissions, rape and sexual assaults at the University of Oxford, and various departments’ admissions statistics.
Paolitto explained to Cherwell, ‘‘A request is refused when the information is covered by one or more of the exemptions in the Act. The exemptions applied in 2015 include those where disclosure would breach the Data Protection Act or where the time required to extract the information would exceed the statutory limit.’’
Lucy Gill, the Legal, Policy and Regulatory Affairs Advisor at News Media Association, has claimed that the proposed changes will reduce the accountability of UK universities. She has argued, “FOI has been good at holding universities to account about how they are treating the money they get from students. Universities will continue to put annual reports into the public domain and will give very headlined figures about how much they receive from each source and broadly speaking what they spend on research. However, if these changes go through you will no longer get the same granular detail on specific matters such as Vice-Chancellor pay and how much they spend on business class travel and other pay and perks.
“FOI has also been used to monitor the success rates of applicants from different backgrounds to Oxford, whether it is for students or professorial posts and this is not something that universities would ordinarily put in the public domain.”
The Freedom of Information Act has helped uncover that, in a report by the University and College Union in March 2015, Vice-Chancellors earned £260,000 on average and spent up to £60,000 on premium flights in 2013-14. Their average hotel bill stood at £3,202. FOI requests also found that in 2012 the University of Oxford killed the second largest number of animals in scientific experiments after the University of Edinburgh.
A spokesperson for the University of Oxford told Cherwell, “Oxford University fully supports the need for universities to be transparent: the University publishes more detailed information about its student body and admissions process than most other institutions, and is fully supportive of universities being subject to the Public Sector Equality Duty.
“In its response to the higher education Green Paper the university noted concerns about the lack of a level playing field between universities and alternative providers with regards to the Freedom of Information Act. Alternative providers are not subject to the act, which puts universities such as Oxford at a competitive disadvantage, particularly in having to bear considerable costs in meeting the requirements of the Act.”
Becky Howe, OUSU President, commented, “Freedom of Information requests helped students lobby their colleges to pay the Living Wage – they’re really vital in maintaining transparent and accountable higher education institutions. As outlined in OUSU’s response to the Green Paper, we are opposed to the Government’s proposal to make universities exempt from FOI requests. It just doesn’t make sense in a Green Paper which is largely about making universities more transparent and accountable — make your mind up, Jo Johnson.”