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Your right to know: Oxford colleges’ responses to FOI requests

Under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000, members of the public have the right to request certain information from public authorities, which are legally required to comply unless an exception applies. This investigation into ten Cherwell investigations over two years examines 310 FOI requests and finds that the average non-responses rate for Oxford’s undergraduate colleges is 25%, with four colleges failing to comply with half or more.

What is FOIA?

“The traditional culture of secrecy will only be broken down by giving people in the United Kingdom the legal right to know,” wrote then-Prime Minister Tony Blair as preface to the 1997 white paper “Your Right to Know” setting out proposals for a Freedom of Information Act. 

Beginning in 2005, FOIA enables anyone to ask public authorities – including all publicly owned companies, educational institutes, and government branches – for information such as documents, meeting minutes, or email correspondences, to which they are entitled a response within 20 working days. Exemptions apply in certain cases, including when data would breach national security or individual privacy or cost excessive resources to compile.

The policy document continued: “Openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state. This white paper marks a watershed in the relationship between the government and people of the United Kingdom. At last there is a government ready to trust the people with a legal right to information.”

Cover of the 1997 proposal for FOIA. Photo credit: Cabinet Office.

Five years after FOIA came into effect, Blair called his past self a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” for supporting the act. He alleged that journalists used FOIA as a weapon, and indeed the act helped expose many of Blair’s scandals. In response to Blair and other politicians who have echoed his critique, media outlets published lists of stories revealed through FOI requests, such as the 2009 scandal over MP’s expenses that led to multiple prison terms and resignations as well as the development of a new parliamentary expense system.

Oxford University’s past compliance with FOIA has brought such information to light as the persistent gender gap in finals and the university’s treatment of animals for science research. A 2018 Cherwell story using FOI requests – to which half the colleges failed to respond – found that heads of college had claimed college expenses for personal spending at exclusive gentlemen’s clubs.

Other student publications such as The Oxford Blue have also used FOIA to find information, including for an investigation into colleges’ violating doctor-patient confidentiality in forced suspension cases.

Oxford University, alongside the Russell Group and Universities UK, attempted to gain exemption from FOI requests in 2016, however, a report by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information ruled against it. Later this month, the University will go to court to defend its blocking a FOI request about the identity of an anonymous donor who gave £10m to establish the Oxford Nizami Ganjavi Centre

Today, Oxford University has guidelines on FOI requests and consistently responds to Cherwell

Colleges, like the University, are public authorities and thus accountable under FOIA. Yet the collegiate system allows individual colleges to slip through the cracks. Although non-compliance cases could land in the Information Commissioner’s Office and ultimately in court, many colleges fail to consistently respond – and face no consequence for their inaction. 

Oxford Colleges’ Track Records

Cherwell conducted an extensive search through past investigation records and gathered data on ten FOI requests going back to Trinity Term of 2022. Topics of inquiry included rules regarding rustication, college banking practices, vacation storage, lack of heating, mental health, donations, rent increase, VNI (Van Noorden inflation Index) figures, college heads’ salaries, and accommodation costs.

For each request, a college is coded as “compliant” if they responded to the request, declined the request per exemption, were not sent a request, or asked Cherwell for a clarification to which Cherwell did not respond. The latter two are rare – only applicable to four instances in 310 data points. This investigation did not seek to quantify the helpfulness of received responses, which also vary.

For the exemption, Cherwell had asked for a list of all donations above a certain amount received by the college. This triggers FOIA’s section 12, where “cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit.” Many colleges rightfully refused to compile this data.

A college is only coded as “non-compliant” if they ignored Cherwell’s FOI request.

Only four colleges responded to every request: Balliol, Keble, Lady Margaret’s Hall, and Pembroke. On average, colleges don’t respond to 2.48 out of the 10 requests. Four colleges failed to comply with half or more requests: Magdalen (9/10), Trinity (7/10), Regent’s Park (5/10), and Wadham (5/10).

Martin Rosenbaum, formerly BBC News leading specialist in using FOI requests, told Cherwell: “This data implies that some colleges have an unacceptable track record of failing to respond adequately to FOI requests. It’s important that all colleges comply with their legal duty to reply properly to FOI surveys so that a fully representative picture is obtained. If some do not respond, that can distort the overall impression and undermine the value of the information obtained from colleges that do deal efficiently with FOI.

“FOI gives everyone the right to obtain information in the public interest under certain circumstances. It’s a good thing for student journalists to make full use of their legal rights in order to make students better informed, and colleges should not obstruct this,” Rosenbaum said.

College’s non-response rate to FOI requests. Graphic by Selina Chen.

Your Right to Know

Cherwell has given colleges with the lowest response rates the opportunity to challenge any data point and made corrections accordingly. 

Trinity’s senior tutor told Cherwell: “I’m sorry to learn that Trinity’s FOI response rate has been lower than that of most other colleges over recent months, and I’m grateful to you for drawing this to my attention. My colleagues and I will review our internal systems to see where they can be improved.”

Asking for an internal review is usually the first step to addressing dissatisfaction with a FOI response, followed by referring the matter to the Information Commissioner’s Office. If the response is still unsatisfactory, members of the public could take the authority to court.

After looking into the matter, the PA to Regent’s Park Principal told Cherwell that three of the five unresponded FOI requests were “forwarded to relevant colleagues but did not receive the necessary information to respond.” The other two were missed in the inbox.

The Wadham FOI officer told Cherwell: “A lot of information is already in the public domain. You don’t need an FOI for that. We feel that [Cherwell searching online] would be a better use of our staff members’ time, as well as that of the Cherwell News team.” The officer asks Cherwell to look in places such as the college’s website and published reports.

However, information available online is often limited and frequently out-of-date. A student who explored colleges’ rustication policies told Cherwell that she resorted to FOI requests after finding the publicly available information to be “legalistic and focused on procedure rather than tangible student experience.” 

The student told Cherwell: “Trust is a key factor in the relationship between colleges and students, and this is enhanced by transparency and open communication.”
Magdalen did not respond to Cherwell’s request for comment.

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