The University of Salford has called for universities to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) which obliges it to disclose information on request to the public and media.
"It is the University of Salford's view that serious consideration should be given to removing Universities from the ambit of the Freedom of Information Act because they are not `Public Authorities' in view of the now relatively small proportion of public funding to British Universities" it states in its opening paragraph of written evidence to Parliament's Justice Select Committee, chaired by Sir Alan Beith, which is currently considering `post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act'.
Despite Salford University's claim in its evidence that "The HE [Higher Education] sector is one of the most open of the sectors of public authority subject to FoIA and the University is committed to proactive disclosure of information", Salford University has been involved with Freedom of Information battles with ex-students, a sacked lecturer and the Salford Star.
When the Salford Star tried to find out how much rent Salford University was paying to Peel Holdings for its new MediaCityUK campus, it took over 18 months for the University to respond, with the Information Commissioner eventually ruling that there had been five breaches of the Freedom of Information Act, with responses "very unsatisfactory" and that there had been "a significant failure to conform to the Code of Practice" (see here).
Eventually the Star got the information, that the University was paying almost £20million in rent at MediaCityUK until 2020 (see here). This was very much in the public interest given that, with around £30million in fit out costs for the campus, the total came to £50million – at the same time that the University was making savings by axing staff, a process that's still continuing (see here).
It was as a result of the constant staff cut backs that people piled in Freedom of Information requests that aimed to make public what was seen as lavish expenditure at the University. Many of these, the University claimed were `vexatious' or, as the dictionary defines it, `annoying', and were refused.
The University even admits to spending a "conservative estimate…in excess of £75,000 in staff time alone, plus substantial legal fees" to block `vexatious' requests for information from Dr Gary Duke, a former lecturer who was sacked and is still involved in an ongoing libel case appeal with Salford University (see here for history).
"It's astonishing, it's a huge amount of tax payers money but sadly I'm not surprised" says Gary Duke "The 'Freedom of Information Champion' at Salford, Deputy Vice Chancellor Dr Adrian Graves, must consider the spending over £75,000 to ensure that my FOI requests are not answered important. The question is why?
"In light of the huge redundancies being imposed at Salford, we're told that it is necessary to save money, and this raises serious questions; this is public money after all" he adds "They've spent in the region of £50,000 - £100,000 on an ongoing libel action against me, and now this vast amount which they say is a 'conservative estimate' and excludes legal fees. Why aren't the University's governing body asking Martin Hall and Adrian Graves serious questions about how they're spending public money? The University is a public body and Salford MP Hazel Blears now needs to call for an immediate inquiry into these matters."
While, a tribunal agreed that the University was right to block the FoIA requests from Gary Duke, it wasn't on the grounds of the actual information requested, just the volume of requests made (see here). In its evidence to the Justice Committee the University argues that "The amount of information required and level of evidence of vexatiousness required by the ICO [Information Commissioner] is, in our view, too high".
Indeed, all the University of Salford's evidence to the Committee is based around trying to make it harder to obtain information, citing costs and commercial confidentiality amongst other reasons. Ideally, though, the University of Salford would like to be removed from having to comply with the Freedom of Information Act altogether because it doesn't consider itself a `public authority'. And this is the organisation that wants to run Salford's schools under its new venture, Salford Academy Trust? (see here)
* The University of Salford's full written evidence is available by clicking here and scrolling down to FOI 31