University funding and access to information: does FOI have a corrosive effect on trust?

The funding of universities is all over the press at the minute, but while the fee rise may be taking the headlines, a furore over donations from dubious sources is almost certainly brewing.

Howard Davies, the former director of the LSE, resigned amid the controversy over Libyan donations to the School, and stories are starting to emerge as part of a campaign to uncover links between British universities and dictatorial regimes. Conservative MP, Robert Halfon, has made requests to 100 top-rated universities aimed at making their financing public knowledge. Durham University was among the first to have their laundry aired last month, when it was revealed that the University had received £700,000 in research grants from Middle-East sources, including £11,000 from the Iranian government[1].

The morality involved in this funding is a minefield in itself, but the implications for FOI are also of interest. On a superficial level, university funding is likely to be the next big story to emerge through the use of FOI. As Mr Halfon gets more responses to his requests it seems likely that funding for higher education will come from a variety of morally suspect sources, and so as a use of FOI to scrutinise public bodies, the subject is of interest. But there is a problem that is developing alongside such stories.

While scrutiny may be flourishing with FOI, as another scandal develops through its use, university funding points to an emerging difficulty: the potentially corrosive impact of transparency on trust. One of the key aims that pro-FOI campaigners argued for while the Act was being drafted was that decreasing secrecy would lead to greater trust in public bodies, but the reality might be the exact opposite.

It is the nature of the press that the stories that will make the biggest impact, and generate the biggest sales, are scandalous: If the results of requests for details of MPs expense claims had proved parliamentarians to be wholly honest then there would have been no story. Paradoxically, while greater levels of scrutiny and a higher chance of journalists uncovering misdeeds may increase trustworthiness, it may do so at the expense of trust[2].

So what can be done? The answer is probably not very much. The more successfully FOI uncovers the wrongdoings of public employees, and the greater the number of their misdeeds that are identified, the less likely people are to trust them. It seems that the more effective a system of FOI is, the more likely it is to damage public trust. Perhaps in the long run, when all the skeletons are uncovered, trust will be improved, but as the investigation into universities has demonstrated, there are still plenty more to find.

* * * *

[1] The Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Durham University is a highly regarded centre for study of the middle east (http://www.dur.ac.uk/sgia/imeis/).

[2] It’s worth noting that press is only one indicator of public trust, and it may be very difficult to measure trust more widely, but nevertheless the media important in this regard. The Ministry of Justice and the ICO have published more detailed research into trust and FOI:

http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/information-rights-tracker-surveys.htm

http://www.ico.gov.uk/~/media/documents/library/Freedom_of_Information/Research_and_reports/FOI_REPORT_FINAL_12_MAY.ashx

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