openDemocracyUK

Why are Russell Group universities opposing FoI?

Top universities think laws to encourage transparency and accountability are “unfair”.

Rachel Melly
26 January 2016
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Flickr/llee_wu

, CC BY-ND 2.0

The Freedom of Information (FoI) Act may sound like a piece of boring and bureaucratic legislation, but it is the reason the MPs expenses scandal came to light, and the reason we know about cracks in the nuclear reactor at Hinkley point B, the cover-up of Cyril Smith MP's child sex abuses, and the extent of UK civil servants pushing arms sales to dictators and human rights abusers.

The Act was set up to promote transparency and accountability, so that the electorate know how public authorities make decisions and spend public funds. But The Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, has written to the government saying they should be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that it is “unfair”.

Being able to hold public bodies accountable is an essential component of democracy.Being able to hold public bodies accountable is an essential component of democracy. Students are more likely to have confidence and trust in their education institution because of the openness that is encouraged by the Freedom of Information Act. Exemption from the Act would allow university officials to hide bad decisions, and practices that are against the public interest.

A lot of university funding comes from tuition fee loans, administered and paid for by the government. A lot of their research funding also comes directly or indirectly from the government. Despite this, the Russell group's letter claims universities “are effectively not public bodies for the purposes of FoI.” The letter says that being obliged to answer FoI requests carries a cost that private universities do not have to pay, making it harder for them to compete commercially.

Universities, like all public bodies, reserve the right to refuse to disclose any financially sensitive information that could affect their ability to compete commercially, but the group argues that just adhering to the law is too large a burden to bear.

Of course if FoI laws really do hurt public universities' competitiveness there is another solution. Why not strengthen the Act to improve the accountability of private universities? The existing legislation has a clause enabling it to be extended to include companies with public contracts – something that is likely to be needed as more and more public services are subcontracted to private firms.

It is only because of FoI that students have found out about universities investing in fossil fuel companies, carrying out research into drone and other weapons technology, and paying staff below the living wage. Without the Act, universities could invest public funds in highly unethical industries and use university facilities to carry out research to help private companies profit from wars and human rights abuses, all without the public and the students who provide the funds even knowing about it.

Conservative MP David Davis said to the Telegragh that weakening the Act “would be a return to a pre-FoI dark ages, when people simply didn't know what was being done in their name with their money. These people have to remember they are public servants. If you are a public servant you have to accept you are subject to public scrutiny." 

The Russell Group's letter was just one of many submissions to a government commission on FoI, and part of a wider campaign against transparency. Critics suggest the review is “likely to lead to more secrecy – allowing politicians and officials to conceal bad decisions and mistakes”.

MPs from all sides, including over 20 Conservatives, oppose the ongoing attempts to water down the Act. David Davis has described it as “a whole load of people being asked are you happy about being held accountable.”

If the Russell Group is given the exemption it has requested then it would no longer have to answer specific requests for information. It would also be exempt from other duties, such as publishing information about how much senior staff are paid and what expenses they can claim, information about how the university complies with the Equalities Act, and results from inspections.

The FoI Act has made students informed about their education and allowed them to have a say on what their university does with their tuition fees. Coming out against it suggests that these universities do not trust students with information, or value students' opinions on how decisions that affect them are made.

There are already too many secretive vested interests with too much input into decision making. They need to be confronted and dragged out into the light, not reinforced and empowered by decision makers that want to avoid tough questions.

 

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