The news industry has hit back at a bid by UK universities to exempt themselves from scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act.
The department of Business, Innovation and Skills is currently consulting on whether universities should be subject to FoI as part of a wider review of the sector.
In December, Press Gazette revealed that the elite Russell Group of universities wants to be exempt from FoI. And Cambridge University claimed that it was not a public body so should be subject to the act.
The News Media Association, which represents most UK newspaper publishers, has warned in a submission to the BIS review that removing universities from FoI would take £4bn of taxpayers money out of public scrutiny.
The Russell Group has claimed that FoI places too much of a financial burden on them.
But the NMA has made FoI requests to the 20 Russell Group universities which revealed they have 284 “communications officers” between them compared with 26 members of staff who have FoI listed as all or part of their duties.
It found that Cambridge University employs 85 communications officers and not a single dedicated FoI officer.
The NMA quoted figures from the Higher Education Funding Council stating that higher education institutions receive £3.97bn a year from the public purse.
NMA legal, policy and regulatory affairs advisor Lucy Gill said: “Universities are powerful institutions that exercise important public functions, such as controlling access to the professions, awarding degrees and the ability to discipline members.
“The educational responsibilities of universities are crucial to the future and standing of individuals, generations and the entire nation. Their research choices and priorities determine the future of scientific progress, critical thinking and artistic achievement in this country.
“Universities are also responsible for the welfare of hundreds of thousands of young people and exert considerable power in their local communities as employers, landowners, property developers and as partners to business and industry. This combination of power and public funding makes universities precisely the kind of institution that FOI was intended to render accountable.”
The NMA is campaigning for FoI to be strengthened by extending it to cover private sector companies contracted to carry out public services, and for a statutory limit on the length of time that public authorities can spend carrying out a review of a refusal notice to be introduced.
As part of its submission, the NMA included a dossier of stories about universities made possible by FoI requests including:
- How Nottingham Trent’s vice chancellor was the UK’s highest paid (on more than £600,000) despite his institution falling in The Guardian rankings
- 53 per cent of universities employ staff on zero hour contracts.
- Cambridge University spent nearly £3m on wine in 2012-2013
- The University of Sussex spent £55,000 in legal fees defending a decision to suspend student protesters that an ombudsman declared illegal,