The UK’s elite universities have asked the Government if they can be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act.
The Russell Group, which represents the UK’s 24 leading universities (including Oxford and Cambridge) has made the request to the Government’s Independent Commission on Freedom of Information which is currently considering ways to limit FoI.
The Cambridge University colleges have said that they should not be subject to FoI because they are not funded by public money. This is despite the fact that most university funding comes from Government-administered and subsidised student loans.
The Russell Group said in a joint response to the commission that its members spent £1.1m answering FoI requests in 2014, this was based on an estimate of £155 per request.
It said that universities should be exempted from FoI to address a “market imbalance” which it said has been created by the fact that they compete with private higher education providers who are not covered by FoI.
These providers include Buckingham University, the College of Law, IFS School of Finance, Ashridge Business School and BPP University College.
It said that “the cost burden has grown unreasonably” and it further claimed that “universities are not public bodies..”.
Referring to the growth of private universities, it said: “In this new market environment, universities and alternative providers are in competition for the same students and the same private-sector partnerships to augment their educational offering.
“The imposition of FoI regulation on universities, including the Russell Group universities, puts established providers at a significant disadvantage compared to alternative providers in the higher education market.
“Furthermore, this continued imbalance contravenes the UK Competition and Market Authority’s stated desire for ‘market neutrality’ in higher education regulation.”
The Colleges of Cambridge University said in a separate submission that FoI costs them £450,000 a year.
They said in their submission to the Government: “The burden on the Colleges is excessive. It is ultimately a financial burden, but also a significant deflection of skilled resources from the Colleges’ primary purpose of education.
“In each of the previous two years the Colleges together received rather over 1,000 requests.”
This estimate suggests that the Cambridge colleges spend £450 answering each FoI request (triple the Russell Group average).
In an apparently contradictory paragraph, the submission states: “The colleges receive no public funds. They receive student fees, which in the case of most undergraduates are paid from student loans funded from the public purse.”
It said the colleges have been faced with requests “that are plainly commercially driven and seek information likely to be sold on for commercial gain”.
The also complained that: “The colleges have received many requests from journalists seeking to have their work done for them at the expense of the college.”
The Cambridge colleges suggest a £10 charge for all FoI requests, but conclude: “The colleges in any event should be outside the scope of the Act, being charities not in receipt of public funds.”
Unversities UK, which represents 132 vice-chancellors and principals, claimed its members spend £10m a year answering FoI requests.
It stopped short of calling for a blanket exemption from the act, but did seek significant curbs.
It said the cost limit on answering FoI requests should be reduced, this limit should be extended to include time needed to consider exemptions and redacting time and that it should include aggregated unrelated requests from the same person in pursuance of a campaign.
It said that competition with alternative education providers, who are not treated as public bodies, can only be “fair and effective if all institutions are operating on a level playing field, subject to the same regulations”.