Student journalists at Warwick have called upon the university to retract their opposition to FOI, after seeing a leaked letter by management which states their belief universities should be exempt from this landmark transparency regulation
Student journalists at the University of Warwick have seen a leaked version of their university’s Green Paper consultation response, which appears to show the university supporting the move to exempt higher education institutions from the Freedom of Information Act, leading to serious concerns universities will increasingly act in the interests of corporate shareholders and not students.
In an article titled “LEAKED: Warwick wants to scrap Freedom of Information” published jointly in official newspaper The Boar and international relations magazine Warwick Globalist, it was revealed that on page 68 of the leaked response, the university states that, “in our view universities should not remain within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.”
Its reasoning seems to be based in the interests of stakeholders, “given the diminishing contribution of the public purse to the sustainability of UKHEI [UK Higher Education Institutions].” Apparently, the heavier corporate involvement makes the right for the public to scrutinise what universities are doing “unclear.”
The continual commitment to stakeholders in the letter “provides more evidence that Warwick’s management are increasingly willing to sacrifice the needs of students to that of other corporate ‘stakeholders’,” say the writers of the article.
The ideas set out in the Green Paper, released in November 2015, appear to be intended to make the legal requirements of public institutions similar to those of less regulated private institutions taking an ever-greater role in HE, to create, according to the Paper, a “level playing field.” This, as well as proposals including that a single minister should be able to set tuition fee levels, has caused widespread outcry across HE institutions.
The Freedom of Information Act, passed in 2000, allows access to data in the public interest stored by public institutions. It has been used to break stories such as the expenses scandal, and on a more student- and Manchester-focussed level, revelations of how much investment the University of Manchester holds in fossil fuel companies. It stands as a bastion of transparency, allowing anyone to scrutinise the activities of many powerful groups which have an influence on public life.
Jo Johnson’s Green Paper includes the statement: “The cost to providers of being within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act is estimated at around £10m per year.
“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.”
FOI itself is not without its problems, and the Editors-in-chief of the respective publications, who penned the piece, acknowledge that, if anything, the act should be stricter not more lenient.
“The Freedom of Information Act is by no means perfect; if anything, its remit over higher education ought to be strengthened, rather than eliminated. There are numerous exemptions which are liberally applied—the Times Higher Education Supplement found that only 35% of universities provided all the information they requested.”
Depsite this, they strongly call for the university to retract this support for an exemption from FOI. “To lose it would be an attack on basic democratic rights. Students have a legitimate right to access raw data and information on their university, to understand what decisions are being made—decisions which impact their lives significantly—and how they’re being taken.
“To deny all students, including student journalists, the opportunity to scrutinise and hold the university to account in this way, is to deny them access to the truth. This is something that we strongly condemn.”
However, the deadline for response submissions is today, Friday the 15th of January.
A spokesperson from the University of Warwick said, “the university, and indeed the Russell Group as a whole, has already expressed this view… on the inclusion of universities in the Freedom of Information legislation.
“We have reiterated our view in response to the recent BIS green paper on Higher Education. We are really why our student newspaper is using the word “leaked” in its headline as that Green Paper response is already public [sic]. We have already shared it with our Students’ Union and will be posting it on our web site in full very shortly.
“The reason for simply reiterating this view in our response to the Green Paper is because the Green Paper itself makes reference to possible creation of even more private Higher Education providers who would again be exempt from the FOI legislation.”
They also cite the responses by the Russell Group and Universities UK to consultations on Freedom of Information. The former reads, “[universities] are subject to numerous regulatory requirements on information reporting, including financial health reporting, publication of data on student satisfaction and graduate employment and publication of information on courses of study. The additional responsibilities created by FOI represent an unnecessary burden.”
UUK make a similar claim: “We are concerned that the burden imposed on universities under the Act is increasingly disproportionate to the public interest in the public’s need to know.”