FOI and universities: A report on the experiences of FOI officers in HE institutions

The Constitution Unit’s research project on the impact of FOI on universities is nearing completion. To gain an insight into the experience of universities in dealing with their FOI responsibilities, we conducted a survey of FOI officers working the HE sector and examined FOI requests made to universities contained within a sample of disclosure logs.  The two-part report detailing the results of our analysis of can be found here.

We found the most common problem that FOI officers encountered were related to their colleagues,  with 92% of respondents citing resistance and a lack of awareness of the legislation amongst other staff as having a negative impact on their ability to carry out their responsibilities and respond to requests.  In addition, similar to the findings in our previous study on local government, we found that colleague orientated difficulties appear to be mitigated by a supportive senior management team.

The most frequently reported positive aspect cited by the officers was the increase in transparency and openness that the FOI/EIR legislation encouraged within their institution as confirmed by 73% of respondents. This included improvements in staff attitudes towards disclosure and the amount of information proactive published by the university. However, throughout the survey it was evident, and was also acknowledged by participants, that it was much easier for them to identify negative aspects rather than positives.

The disclosure logs showed journalists and the public to be the most common requesters, accounting for 59% of the 780 requests we analysed between them. The most commonly requested information was related to ‘student issues’, followed by ‘HR and staff issues’ and then ‘teaching and assessment’.

Journalists appear to be much more interested in interrogating student life than students are, accounting for 35% of the requests for information on ‘student issues’ compared to the 7% originating from current students, though several officers commented in the survey that they anticipate that this will increase following the introduction of the £9k tuition fees in the forthcoming academic year.

The disclosure log analysis also provided a useful indicator of the level of impact that controversial research can have on an institution. 13% of the requests we coded were about research, 84% of which were contained within the East Anglia disclosure log. This is demonstrative of the effect that the climate-based research and subsequent ‘climategate’ event had on the type and volume of requests received by East Anglia. Generally research focused requests were for research data itself or the research ‘policies’ of the institution.

Please see our report for the full details of our findings.

The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and is due to be completed later this summer. Please see our project page for further outputs.