Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Laying Our Cards on the Table Builds Public Trust

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Laying Our Cards on the Table Builds Public Trust

Article excerpt

...Maurice Frankel contends that the openness and accountability ushered in by the FoI Act boosts confidence in the sector

Given the opportunity, almost any sector will argue that freedom of information is fine for others but somehow not for them. MPs are the classic example. Having passed the Freedom of Information Act they sought to exclude Parliament from it, supposedly to protect the letters they wrote on constituents' behalf but in fact to conceal...well, we all know what.

FoI has brought an important degree of scrutiny to universities. Anyone looking for a way out of that reform is taking a dangerous gamble.

In 2005 De Montfort University was found to have improperly upgraded the marks of underperforming pharmacology students, 50 per cent of whom were failing their first- and second-year exams. Staff who opposed the move were told that the high failure rate threatened their jobs. Marks were artificially boosted by up to 14 per cent, reducing the pass mark in one module to just 21 per cent. The university claimed that revealing details would damage their reputation and commercial interests, and those of their students. But the Information Commissioner ruled that the public interest lay in ensuring the competence of those who might go on to administer medicines to the public.

In 2009 the University of Central Lancashire was required to disclose the course materials used to teach a BSc degree in homeopathy. An appeal tribunal accepted that, in general, course materials could have commercial value to a university but that in this case there was little real competition and a significant public interest in understanding the legitimacy of a degree course as academically contentious as homeopathy.

In 2011 Newcastle University was required to disclose anonymised details of the Home Office licence that allowed it to carry out research using primates, restrained by head and body for up to six hours a day and deprived of water much of the time while carrying out repetitive tasks. A German licensing authority had previously refused permission for what appeared to be a similar study by the same lead researcher, according to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, which finally obtained access to the licence after a three-year campaign, with minor redactions to protect researchers' safety.

The act has been used by Unison and the National Union of Students to document low pay, revealing that 12,600 university staff were earning less than the living wage in 2012-13. A separate FoI survey showed that more than 24,000 teaching, research or academic higher education staff were engaged on zero-hours contracts. …

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