The importance of the principle of Freedom of Information (1516P9)

Status: Active | Zone: Sustainability

Passed: 16/08/2016 | Lapses: 01/07/2018

This policy was discussed at the following meetings:

  • 1.       The Freedom of Information Act 2000, in particular the following parts:
    a.       Part 1.1: General right of access to information held by public authorities, subsection (1), as below
    “(1) Any person making a request for information to a public authority is entitled—
    (a) to be informed in writing by the public authority whether it holds information of the description specified in the request, and
    (b) if that is the case, to have that information communicated to him.”
    b.      Schedule 1 (which lists what are counted as ‘Public Authorities’) Part 4, paragraph 53 subsection 1, as follows:
    “(1) The governing body of—
    (a) an institution within the further education sector,
    (b) a university receiving financial support under section 65 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992,
    (c) an institution conducted by a higher education corporation,
    (d) a designated institution for the purposes of Part II of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 as defined by section 72(3) of that Act, or
    (e) any college, school, hall or other institution of a university which falls within paragraph (b).”
    2.       HM Government’s recent green paper entitled “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice” which was written by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and open for consultation from 6th November 2015 to 15th January 2016, in particular the following under Chapter 3 paragraphs 17 and 18:
    “17. There are a number of requirements placed on HEFCE-funded providers which do not apply to alternative providers. Many derive from treating HEFCE-funded providers as ‘public bodies’. This is despite the fact that the income of nearly all of these providers is no longer principally from direct grant and tuition fee income is not treated as public funding. Alternative providers are not treated as public bodies. As a result there is an uneven playing field in terms of costs and responsibilities. For example, the cost to providers of being within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act is estimated at around £10m per year.”
    “18. 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.”
    3.       The response to this part of the green paper from Dr Tim Bradshaw, Director of Policy at the Russell Group of Universities (which includes the University of Southampton) in a letter dated 20th November 2015 to Lord Burns, the chair of the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, which in its opening paragraphs states:
    “As you will be aware, the Freedom of Information Act (2000) extends compliance with the Act to universities and other higher education providers supported by public funding (Schedule 1, part IV, paragraphs 53 and 55). In practical terms, this means that any higher education providers in receipt of funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) or the Department for Employment and Learning - Northern Ireland (DELNI) are subject to FOI. This includes our universities.
    We believe that this requirement has resulted in unintended consequences. In particular, the FOI requirement has created a competitive imbalance in the UK higher education market and increasingly burdensome reporting requirements for our universities.
    Your review is therefore very timely and we hope that you will agree with our recommendation that universities should now be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act (2000).”
    4.       The response to this part of the paper from Universities UK, which in its concluding paragraphs reads as follows:
    “We believe that it is right to consider how the FOIA interacts with proposals for reforms of regulation in the sector to ensure that an effective balance can be struck between the public’s right to know and burden on institutions. Higher education providers are subject to a range of public information requirements, including mandated sector data provision, requirements of professional and statutory and regulatory bodies and the consumer rights laws, which includes requirements for provision of accurate material information to students and fair terms and conditions.
    In light of this we welcome the government’s commitment to review how best to ensure a level playing field for all providers whilst protecting the interests of students and the general public. This should include mechanisms that would allow appropriate exemptions for universities from the act whilst making appropriate information available.”
    5.       The statement from Jem Collins, Chair of the Student Publication Association (SPA) (as supplied to the Wessex Scene) which reads:
    “FOI is one of the most fundamental tools for holding universities to account. This isn’t just about student journalists – it’s also about all student’s right to know how their, and the public’s money is being spent. Scrapping FOI for universities would be a disastrous move for student journalism – our recent awards alone have shown how many shocking stories would never have come to light without the help of the act.201D
    6.       The petition on Change.org established by Hiran Adhia, Editor-in-Chief at ‘The Boar’ (Warwick’s Student Newspaper), which:
    a.       Condemns the proposal and implores both the Russell Group and Universities UK to retract their statements.
    b.      Asks individual universities to speak out against the proposal.
  • 1.       That the principle of Freedom of Information is vital to members of the public and general media groups to be able to hold all public authorities (as per Schedule 1 of the Act) to account for their work.
    2.       That for student media groups, and the entire student population, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is an essential tool for them to be able to hold the University of Southampton to account.
    3.       That Universities should continue to be covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
    4.       That the University of Southampton should work closely with all media organisations equally to enable the principle of Freedom of Information to be upheld.
    5.       That the responses to the consultation from the Russell Group and Universities UK should be withdrawn without delay.
    6.       That a nationwide discussion is needed on the importance of the principle of Freedom of Information.
    7.       That a legal exemption would not outright ban Universities from upholding the principle of Freedom of Information.
    8.       The University of Southampton currently displays a disregard for the Freedom of Information Act, regularly breaching the legally-required timescales for responding to requests.
  • 1.       To condemn the proposal outlined in the green paper from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.
    2.       To condemn the responses from both the Russell Group and Universities UK.
    3.       To lobby the University of Southampton to:
    a.        Speak out against the proposal.
    b.      Use its contacts to lobby other members of the Russell Group, and other members of Universities UK to speak out against the proposal.
    c.       Press for the withdrawal of the responses from the Russell Group and Universities UK.
    d.      Improve their performance in responding to requests for information, including meeting the legally-required timescales.
    e.      Use its contacts in HM Government to express its opposition to the proposal.
    f.        Uphold the principle of Freedom of Information regardless of any legal exemption being passed into law.  
    4.       To support the position of the SPA and work closely with that and any other interested organisations (including but not limited to other Student Unions) to promote the importance of the principle of Freedom of Information. 
  • 1.       The Union President to release a statement on behalf of the Union that reflects all parts of the Believes and Resolves sections of this policy, and to ensure that this statement is publicised through the appropriate communication channels.
    2.       The Union President and Vice-President of Democracy and Creative Industries to lobby University management in accordance with Resolves part 3.
    3.       The Vice-President of Democracy and Creative Industries to make contact with the SPA and other interested organisations and explore (and act upon) ways to promote the importance of the principle of Freedom of Information.