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.

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[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

Climategate: just the tip of the iceberg?

“Climategate” hit the news again last month with the publication of the Select Committee Report, but beneath the climate-sceptics and the angry headlines lurks another problem: what does FOI mean for universities?

Richard Thomas, the former Information Commissioner, summed up the position under the FOIA when he spoke at the latest inquiry into the scandal. He said: “[t]he fact that FOIA requests relate to complex scientific data does not detract from the proposition [that FOI improves accountability and good governance] or excuse non-compliance”. FOI legislation includes exceptions for information that is intended for future publication, as well as where commercial interests may be harmed, but it is not yet clear what these exceptions cover in academia. Lack of clarity is a problem in itself, but it is not alone.

First, there are the administrative burdens and costs in the wake of sizable cuts in the education sector. Websites such as academicfoi.com are becoming involved in investigating universities and their employment practices as well as those interested in the work of academic staff. With academic institutions becoming the target of FOI in themselves as well as for their research, their workload could well increase. This scrutiny may increase standards, but it has other effects.

On average, universities have less than the equivalent of one full time member of staff dealing with ‘FOI issues’, with universities struggling to respond within time limits[1].

If universities are to maintain records to the standard required to fulfil requests, then this will require either more staff, or for current staff to shift their attention. The choice between increased costs or decreased services will not be easy in the current climate.

Second, while research councils are encouraging academics to share data, the idea is less than welcome among many researchers. Professor Mike Baillie, in particular, has been scathing about the idea that his data is up for grabs for the ‘price of a stamp’: “[w]e are the ones who trudged miles over bogs and fields carrying chain saws. We prepared the samples and- using quite a lot of expertise and judgment- we measured the ring patterns”. Is it right that FOI can make this hard work of researchers public property? What is the effect on copyright and how will it apply to private funding?

On the other hand, while life may be harder for academics facing FOI requests, it also creates new opportunities. Researchers at the University of Manchester have used FOI to find that Muslim terrorists are no more likely to come from areas with large Muslim populations than anywhere else, while the New Scientist scrutinised the preparedness of the MOD for nuclear accidents.

Right now there are more questions than answers, but what is clear is that clarity is needed. The higher education sphere is both a user of and subject to FOI, and it needs to work out what this means and adapt. It is with this in mind that the Research Information Network, in association with several other organisations, is running a series of workshops next month to examine the implications of FOI for the higher education research community. The Constitution Unit will be contributing to these events, and the hope is that this is the first step in working out what FOI means for the academic sphere.

[1] Joint Information Systems Committee infoNet, GuildHE and Universities UK. 2009. Information Legislation and Management Survey 2009 (http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/foi-survey/2009/im-survey.pdf)