Monday, January 09, 2006

Higher Education FOI survey

Press release
One year on: Higher Education meets the challenges of the public’s ‘right to know’

Survey results show how HE institutions have coped with the first year of the Freedom of Information Act

3rd January 2006. The Higher Education sector has responded both positively and successfully to the first year of the Freedom of Information Act, survey results published to mark the Act’s first anniversary reveal. The survey, a joint initiative by JISC, Universities UK and SCOP (the Standing Conference of Principals), show that the overwhelming majority of the requests being received by institutions are being answered fully, on time and free of charge.

The online survey was carried out between mid-October to mid-November and attracted a response rate of 50% of Universities UK and SCOP members in England & Wales. The results highlight the impact compliance is having on institutions and the resources being diverted to deal with its requirements, with the evidence suggesting that the impact of responding to requests is disproportionate to their quantity.

Over a quarter of those who responded said that an average of four members of staff are actively involved in responding to any one request; whilst for over half the requests recorded it has taken between five and the permitted maximum of twenty working days to complete them, although such figures possibly refer to elapsed time rather than hours of continuous activity. However, the survey found that the most time-consuming aspects of a response procedure included reviewing the information requested, consideration of any possible exemptions to disclosure, and locating specific pieces of information within large and complex organisations.

The survey results also reveal the high numbers of requests that institutions are fielding from the press, with journalists responsible for 45% of those requests where the enquirer could be identified. Perhaps related to this is the fact that matters pertaining to the management and administration of institutions top the list of favourite subject areas.

The results show that there appears to be no significant tailing off of use of the Act following an initial surge of interest, as many had initially predicted. This, compared with a widely reported rise in the number of requests for personal information received under the pre-existing data protection legislation, provides a timely reminder for institutions that the public is becoming increasingly aware of their legal ‘right to know’ and that these rights are here to stay.

Whilst the findings of the survey are a testament to the openness and accountability which has long characterised the HE sector, they also reinforce the need for continued efforts to ensure ongoing compliance. The organisations responsible for the survey have agreed to continue to support the sector with proposals already underway for a joint conference in the Spring focusing on compliance issues.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "This survey shows an impressive speed of response to FOI requests by HEIs despite the fact that the resources to deal with them have largely been found from within existing structures. Despite the inevitable disruption to normal business that FOI requests bring with them, it is clear that HEIs are open and transparent in their business and have made provision to ensure that this continues to be the case."

Dr Malcolm Read, Executive Secretary of JISC, welcomed the survey results, saying: “These results show that while higher education institutions are having to invest significant resources to ensure compliance with the Act, they are also discharging their responsibilities positively and effectively. JISC looks forward to working with partners to provide support for them as they continue to do so.”

full results of the survey

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