The higher education green paper published this month by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills includes proposals to make universities exempt from freedom of information laws. The government’s further education agenda includes the suggestion that universities and education providers should not be classified as public bodies and therefore they paper, entitled “Higher education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice”, estimates that the cost to providers of complying with the scope of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act is around £10m a year. The source of this claim is a report by Universities UK, a group that lobbies tge government on behalf of higher education providers.
The report states that a “number of requirements are placed on Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded providers which do not apply to alternative providers”. The report goes on to claim that, as the “income of nearly all of these providers is no longer principally from direct grant and tuition fee income”, it should not be “treated as public funding. Alternative providers are not treated as public bodies”. This proposed change is in accordance with the government’s wider plan to restructure the FOI Act.
The Times Higher Education supplement has used Freedom of Information requests to report that “UK universities spent £86.7 m on commission payments to overseas recruitment agents in 2013-14”.
[su_spoiler title=”Should universities be subject to FOI laws?” style=”simple” icon=”chevron-circle” anchor=”End”]The Freedom of Information Act has provided us with important information over the years, from dubious MP expense claims to details of who Britain has been selling weapons to. So at first it does seem worrying that the government is suggesting universities will soon no longer be subject to FOI requests. Will we soon have no way to find out if our tuition fees are being spent on expensive holidays and curved TVs behind our backs? Hopefully not.
Rather than to allow universities free reign to splash their cash on whatever they want, this change seems to stem from the changing ways universities are funded. The act only applies to public institutions, and these days public funding provides as little as 15-20% of university income. This ultimtely means that freedom of information requests received from universities by journalists or activists or members of the public, which are estimated to cost higher education institutions collectively upwards of £10m a year, aren’t just being paid for by public taxes, they’re also being paid for by the tuition fees of students.
Indeed, billions of pounds of public money is still invested into universities each year, and the institutions should certainly be transparent about what they spend this on, whether it be new buildings or equipment. Ultimately, however, it just doesn’t make sense that the general public should be able to request information on what universities are spending student fees on. If the Freedom of Information Act applies to institutions that have any public funding, then every business that has ever received a government grant should also technically have to make all their information public on request, and this simply isn’t the case.
Perhaps universities should only be required to share information that is requested by us, the students paying for our place here. This would cut down the volume and cost of Freedom of Information requests, while still allowing students to know what they are paying for should they so wish.