The past, present and future of Freedom of Information in Higher Education

The results of the 11th annual information legislation and management survey were published last week. They show that for the first time since the survey’s beginnings in 2005 the number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests that Higher Education institutions (HEIs) receive has slightly decreased from a yearly average of 218 per institution in 2014 to 212 in 2015.

Other trends have continued: student issues, IT provision and financial information are still the main subjects of requests, whilst journalists, members of the public and commercial organisations continue to represent the main requesters.

The data collected from the survey since its inception in 2005 allows us to analyse the long term trends in the sector and give institutions the opportunity to benchmark the numbers of requests received and their key performance indicators. Data from the survey has been used for reports by sector bodies and most recently for submissions by UUK to the call for evidence from Independent Commission on Freedom of Information.

The Commission was established by the government in July 2015 to review the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and was dissolved in March 2016. It considered -amongst others- whether a change is needed to moderate the burden of the Act on public authorities whilst at the same time maintaining public access to information. The Commission has recently published a report outlining recommendations that have a direct impact on HEIs. Some results of the 2015 survey are interesting in light of the Commission’s recent report:

The commercial nature of HEIs 

The main outcome of the Commission’s review for HEIs is that their status in regard to the FOI Act is not likely to change now. Many institutions and sector bodies (UUK and the Russell Group) have argued that universities should cease to fall under the Act due to their increasing commercial nature. The commission found these arguments unpersuasive.

To support the view that universities are becoming more commercial in nature, the survey results show that requests for financial information (such as contracts etc.) have slightly increased to 16% of requests and are the third most requested category of information. At the same time, the use of FOI exemptions Section 43 (commercial interests) has slightly increased to 16% in 2015 but is only the fourth most frequently used category. Many requests for commercial information might have fallen under the IT provision and use category (13%) as well as exemption Section 12 (excessive cost of compliance) (25%). Judging from these figures, it would appear that interest in commercial activities of universities is increasing slightly year by year.

Tackling delays due to internal reviews and public interest test

The Commission recommended putting in place a time limit of 20 working days for internal reviews and public interest tests. Judging by the survey results, this recommendation should not be difficult for HEIs because the number of appeals to be dealt with was relatively low overall. In 2015 the total number of internal appeals was 114 and of external appeals only 24 (of a total of 10796 FOI requests). Overall 95% of all FOI requests were responded to within 20 working days or less.

Mandating the publication of compliance statistics and the publication of responses to requests

The Commission recommended the publication of statistics for every public authority with over 100 employees and that these should be co-ordinated by a central body. In addition, it was put forward that these public authorities should also be required to publish responses to requests as soon as practical after the information is given out.

This is certainly an area where more work can be done and Jisc would be interested to understand further how HEIs are planning to implement disclosure logs. According to our survey only 10% of responding institutions publish a disclosure log and the main reason for not implementing one is that their limited value would not justify the resources required to implement it (52%). 16% of institutions state that a disclosure log is planned but not yet implemented and 27% of institutions do not publish one because it is not currently mandatory.

Jisc provides an Information Request Register tool that allows HEIs to record and track requests under either the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), or FoISA for Scottish organisations, Data Protection Act (DPA) or Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). This tool could be useful for institutions to enable them to gather relevant statistics, if requested by the government.

The burden of FOI on HEIs

In their submission to the Commission, Universities UK have argued that the burden of FOI has increased over the years. This is supported by ILM survey results over the years with monthly average numbers of FOI requests per institution rising from 2.8 in 2005 to 17.7 in 2015. However, the 3% decrease in FOI requests in our most recent survey indicates at least a temporary standstill in the number of requests being received by HEIs but it is too early to see whether this represents the beginning of a sustained trend.

Another argument here was that requests have become increasingly more complex and costly, with the increases in areas where the cost cannot be claimed such as redaction. UUK have therefore recommended to extend the range of costs taken into account. However, even though the time taken to redact information prior to publication is overall still perceived as long or very long, the latest ILM survey results indicate a decline in the time taken to redact information. In 2015 67% of institutions felt that it would take medium to very long to redact information compared to 73% in 2014. Similarly, time taken to identify information has declined with 78% of respondent perceiving it as very short or short in 2015 compared to 67% in 2014.

Interestingly, there is an increase in the amount of respondents who felt that locating and accessing information took long to very long from 31% in 2014 to 38% in 2015. This could be an indication that requests have become more complex and information needs to be retrieved from across the digital infrastructure which adds an additional burden for staff responsible for information compliance and management.

Jisc have long supported the information compliance and management community at HEIs with practical tools, advice and guidance around information governance.  Please contact Nicole Convery, our subject specialist for systems, tools and information management if you would like to find out more about the support that Jisc can offer in this regard.

We would like to thank everyone who has submitted data to our annual Information Legislation and Management survey. Your contribution has enabled the use of the data to inform government about FOI in Higher education and will inform future activity in this area at Jisc.

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