Government seeks to exempt universities from Freedom of Information Act

Plans have been unveiled by the UK Government to exempt British universities from the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), introduced in 2000 to grant the general public the right to request and access information and data held by public bodies.

The proposal, part of a Green Paper on Higher Education published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, seeks to ensure that a competitive higher education market can be established between private institutions – currently exempt from FOI – and British universities.

The  Green Paper states: “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.”

The Paper continues: “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.”

A spokesperson for Universities Scotland, which represents the majority of Scottish universities, told The Student: “We welcome the publication of the UK Government’s Green Paper on Higher Education and are currently working through the detail of the document. As recipients of public funding, Scotland’s universities are fully committed to being transparent and accountable as to how they use public investment to deliver maximum value for Scotland’s people and contribute to the country’s sustainable economic growth.

“It is important to review regularly how the highest standards of transparency can be delivered efficiently, given that FOI requests cost the sector more than £10m per year to administrate, however, our understanding is that this specific proposal applies to institutions in England only.”

The Shadow Digital Minister, Louise Haigh, dismissed the Green Paper’s proposals saying: “On the government’s logic, we would have to exempt almost all public services from freedom of information given how far their privatisation programme has gone.

“Rather than removing accountability from public services, we have been clear that they should instead be considering how to extend it to all providers, including private companies, where they are paid from taxpayers’ money.”

Other proposed measures in the Government’s Green Paper include an extension to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which will allow most English universities to align tuition fees with levels of inflation from 2017-2018, and the creation of an Office for Students to “promote the student interest and value for money.”

Recommendations in the Green Paper also argue that giving new universities “quicker access to student funding” and the ability to award degrees, as well as “no cap on student numbers”, would encourage the establishment of new higher education institutions thereby creating more competition within the sector.

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