Freedom Of Information Requests To Universities Under Fire After £250,000 Legal Bill
Universities have submitted a barrage of complaints over being subjected to Freedom of Information requests, after one was landed with a quarter of a million pound legal bill.
More than 25 universities were consulted by a justice select committee scrutinising the FOI Act (FOIA) introduced in 2000.
The research, commissioned by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), was submitted to the Commons' committee. The number of FOI requests had risen by up to 25% each year since the act had become legislation.
Universities took the opportunity to rail against the laws which they deemed time-wasting, inefficient and costly.
Newcastle University bore the most antipathy towards the FOIA after a squabble with the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) over animal experiments resulted in the institution forking out at least £250,000 in legal fees alone.
The university claimed the case had placed "considerable strain" on staff.
Meanwhile, Bristol University described the "resentment of staff" towards the Act and suggested reducing the time limit to respond to requests stipulated in section 12 from 18 hours to "seven or 12 would be welcome".
But Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter told The Huffington Post UK there are already a "great number of safeguards in the FOI process."
"The purpose of the FOIA is to allow transparency. It is easy for institutions to say they would rather not comply with them."
Universities UK, the higher education action group, said the question of how the FOIA should be applied to a more diverse set of higher education providers "needs resolving as a matter of urgency".
"This would allow large requests to be refused more easily and therefore reduce the institutional burden," it added.
Oxford University recounted one instance where one academic responsible for managing course admissions spent 30 hours providing information in response to multiple request from one individual "who feels aggrieved at being rejected for the course some 10 years ago".
Another university added the FOIA was being misused for profitable motives by private companies trying to establish whether contracts with other suppliers had been completed.
Slaughter said he was sympathetic to Higher Education Institutions more so than government departments but "nobody said it would be easy to comply".
"Organisations who have to comply wished they didn't and are seeking to limit the scope of the FOIA. But we should be looking to increase the ambit rather than decreasing it."
According to the MoJ's report, the public should be charged for submitting FOI requests, something which critics have hit out at.
Slaughter said: "It’s alarming that this Tory-led Government is looking at introducing a charge for submitting Freedom of Information requests.
"Labour introduced Freedom of Information legislation as a means of opening up the public sector and improving transparency in government. A charge payable for each freedom of information request is nothing less than a tax on transparency."
But Tony Blair has previously described the Act, which he was responsible for introducing, as “dangerous” and blamed his own “stupidity” for the introduction of the FOI laws.
The University of Bedfordshire added it received a "large number" of requests from journalists, representing "speculative 'fishing expeditions'".
"We increasingly find many FOI requests are made to solicit information already in the public domain and are often the product of lazy journalism or an attempt to offset resource limitations within their own organisations by using University staff as de facto research assistants."