JISC infoNet recently conducted a Freedom of Information survey on behalf of the JISC, UUK (Universities UK) and SCOP (the Standing Conference of Principals). The survey, carried out during October/November 2005, achieved a 50% response rate from UUK and SCOP members within England and Wales and reveals that the Higher Education (HE) sector has responded both positively and successfully to the first year of the Act.
Results show that the overwhelming majority of the requests received by institutions are being answered fully, on time and free of charge. Evidence suggests that the impact of responding to requests is disproportionate to their quantity, highlighting the burden of compliance on institutions and the resources being diverted to deal with the requirements of the Act. Over a quarter of respondents stated an average of four staff members are involved in responding to any one request, whilst over half the requests recorded had taken between five and the permitted 20 working days to complete. The most time-consuming aspects of a response procedure included reviewing the information requested, consideration of any possible exemptions to disclosure and locating specific information within large and complex organisations. Results also reveal high numbers of requests fielded from the press, with journalists responsible for 45% of 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.
There appears to be no significant tailing off of use of the Act following an initial surge of interest. Compared with a rise in the number of requests for personal information received under the pre-existing data protection legislation, results provide 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 findings from 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 underway for a joint conference in Spring 2006 focusing on compliance issues.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of UUK, 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."
The results of the survey can be found on the JISC infoNet website http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/foi-survey.
Records and Information Manager