Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from the University of Bristol


The University of Bristol would like to offer some comments in relation to the above consultation regarding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Universities UK (UUK) is submitting a comprehensive response on behalf of the sector but we would like to add our individual voice to the review. The University fully supports all submissions made by UUK in their response.

We should first state that the University does believe in being open and transparent about its activities and we proactively publish a great deal of information on our website in relation to the University’s business, its governance and finances.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) hold a different position to most bodies subject to FOIA as they do not provide a public service, unlike local councils and other public facing bodies, and receive often substantial amounts of their funding from private sources. These conflicting positions can cause difficulties for HEIs when FOI requests are received.

Cost of Compliance

The cost of compliance with requests made under FOIA is of major concern. Requests received by the University have increased from 49 in 2007 to 142 in 2011 without any further resource dedicated to responding to requests. Requests are also becoming more complex and time consuming and often serve little public interest eg the use of FOIA by commercial organisations conducting their own customer research.

This increase adds an extra burden across the University and staff can be diverted away from their day jobs for up to two days when responding to a sizeable request. The reduction of the appropriate limit under section 12 of the Act from £450 (18 hours) to a more reasonable time period (perhaps seven or 12 hours) would be welcome. This would allow large requests to be refused more easily and therefore reduce the institutional burden. It would also reduce the resentment felt by staff towards FOIA.

At present, we are not able to take into account the time taken for considering FOIA exemptions, researching case law and redacting exempt information when making a calculation of the time estimate for a request. These can be the most time consuming parts of dealing with a request and it would be helpful if these were included in a calculation under section 12 of the Act.

A requester may also send a ‘round robin’ request to all UK HEIs at the touch of a button that can cause a huge amount of time and money being spent collectively across the sector as over 150 institutions attempt to provide information. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) is helpful when large scale round robins are made, but its profile could be raised so requesters know where they can obtain sector-wide information.

Research and Private Funders

As FOIA applies to all information ‘held’ by the University, research data in relation to a privately funded project is subject to requests made under the Act. FOIA is in place to provide transparency in the spending of public money but our position under FOIA could lead us to release information that has had no public funding whatsoever. This can also cause tension in relationships between HEIs and private funders when negotiating contracts and during the research itself. This could lead to a reduction in the amount of private funding received at a time when the amount of public money being allocated to higher education has been reduced dramatically.

With this reduction in public funding, attracting private funding will become more important for HEIs and our ability to maintain relations with private funders is integral to that.

Publication Schemes

Under FOIA, we are required to maintain a publication scheme that lists all the information we are committed to publish on a regular basis. While the principle is well intentioned, our website is essentially our publication scheme and users looking for information should (hopefully) be able to find the relevant information or person to contact relatively easily, leaving the publication scheme itself largely redundant.

As stated, we believe the UUK response will cover these areas in greater detail but we wish to have the University’s comments recorded and added to the consultation responses.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012