Universities blocked from trying to exempt themselves from Freedom of Information laws

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Alastair Thomas
Editor

The University of Glasgow and Russell Group universities have seen their proposal to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act rejected.

Glasgow is one of 24 elite universities who demanded exemption from the Act, implemented in 2005 to allow free access to information about public institutions. However, the UK’s Russell Group had asked to “level the playing field” with private education institutions, who are not under the same obligations.

Glasgow University would not necessarily have seen any changes even if its proposals were accepted, as education policy is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but the University did not deny supporting the changes.

The government produced green paper at the end of 2015 suggesting some further education institutions could be given protections from the Act: “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.”

The Glasgow Guardian asked the University of Glasgow if it agreed with the Russell Group’s proposal, who replied, saying: ‘As an institution we are committed to being open, accessible and honest. However the cost of administering FOI requests, many of which could be answered more directly, has greatly increased in recent years putting a strain on our finite resources. It may be an appropriate moment to review the legislation.’

Despite the proposals, Jack Straw, part of the five-person commission reviewing FOI laws, said there was “no prospect” of universities becoming exempt.

If universities were given exemption from Freedom of Information laws, £4 billion of public money would have become shielded from public access.

Christopher Graham, the UK Information Commissioner, warned that a clampdown on freedom of information laws will take Britain back to the “dark ages”.

Critics of the Freedom of Information Act have argued that it places an unnecessary burden on public institutions, costing time and money that could be more effectively spent elsewhere. However, freedom of information campaigners believe the Act reduces wasteful spending and can expose corruption within public institutions.
The National Union of Students (NUS) released a statement condemning the demands, saying: “Freedom of Information requests are an important channel for students and the taxpayer to hold institutions, which receive Government funds, either directly or indirectly, to account.

“We understand FOI requests can be an administrative burden… We believe the Government should look into ways to ensure the FOI Act works in the interests of the public and the key stakeholders in higher education”.