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Money without accountability

The Mail is reporting that universities are trying to put themselves beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. 

Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are consulting on whether to remove universities from the law, which obliges public bodies to respond to requests for information about their finances and how they operate.

The proposal is in a consultation document on education reform and comes on top of another, hugely controversial, review of the Act ordered by the Cabinet Office.

There is no point in having a publicly funded dreaming spire if the public can see that all you are doing is dreaming.

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Reader Comments (35)

It's not the dreaming one worries about.

Jan 15, 2016 at 8:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

It is in the general public's interest that the universities be allowed to dream. They are far more dangerous in the present case where they are required to pretend to be relevant.

Many people on this blog believe that the universities could be regulated into doing genuinely useful work. This faith in regulation is touching but naive: regulation is always by bureaucrats, and bureaucratic regulation is always by conformity to the latest nostrums, not by common sense. The wave of activist nonsense coming out of universities at present is all driven by the latest form of bureaucratic regulation, the desire for "impact". (Note that "impact" has a highly technical definition, and should under no circumstances be confused with genuine impact on society.)

This does not, of course, mean that universities have a right to be funded: it is entirely up to society how much money it chooses to give us. Nor does it mean that society shouldn't set some broad brush preferences, say between history and physics. But once society (by which in reality we mean politicians and bureaucrats) starts "picking winners" it's not going to end well.

Accountability is a different matter yet again. On FOI I hold the old-fashioned view that somebody else should set the rules and universities should obey them. As someone who has both made and answered FOI requests it is not obvious to me where the balance should lie, and I am happy to leave that to other heads.

Jan 15, 2016 at 8:51 AM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones

I largely agree with Jonathan, less so with the argument of the Russell Group. Universities may be private, but the bulk of the research money is public and arguably the same is true for teaching: the state gives money to students to give the universities. Universities are public in spirit if not in letter, and we certainly should be held to account by the voter and the taxpayer.

Jan 15, 2016 at 9:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Tol

As I see it, the bureaucrats are flouting the FOI Act. Firstly, the Priminister David Cameron, stated that he would address the issue of MPs expenses after the scandal broke. He simply took their expenses out of range of the FOI Act. Now it would seem that they are doing the same for universities. I suspect there will be a systematic process put in place whereby one by one, public taxpayer funded institutions & organisations, will be steadily removed from the Act's reach, returning them all to the old fashioned status quo of being a law unto themselves, with little information as to how & why they operate in the way that they do! But then again, I am a synical old so'n'so!

Jan 15, 2016 at 10:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

In what philosophy of science does one find that the "scientist" should hide his work, data, methods, and so forth? If the con-artists in academia are going to attempt to drive public policy with their findings, then why does the research need to be hidden from prying eyes?

It is well known that "peer review" is broken and only serves to support the group think consensus, as does hiding the data, methods, and computer code.

It is beginning to look like an "honorable, honest scientist" is as rare as hen's teeth.

Jan 15, 2016 at 10:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterMark Stoval

Ever wonder why the expression is 'ivory towers'
But then as the prophet Jones said 'why should I show you the data , you only want to find something wrong with it '
While the recent heads of the RS have worked hard to change its motto from 'take nobodies word for it ' to 'trust me I am an scientists'

On a personal note , I often wonder why professional academics feel they should not to have match the standards they require of their own students when it come to features as data ability .

Jan 15, 2016 at 10:37 AM | Unregistered Commenterknr

Agreed, as should any private firm that receive public funds to provide services. i.e G4S

Jan 15, 2016 at 10:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I can't agree with JJ, who seems to confuse regulation with over-sight; bureaucracy with valid audit.

Jan 15, 2016 at 11:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

Can I have a hat tip for this? Please? Pretty please with sugar on top even!?!? :)

Anyway, given the lengths universities have gone to keeping data and information out of you sceptics grubby little hands because all you want to do is poke holes in their work is this really going to change anything?

They don't share information as it is so really this ain't gonna make any difference what so ever...apart from making not sharing information a legal thing I guess!



[BH adds: Actually I beat you to it. My post went live at 8:02am, 15 minutes before your comment on unthreaded!]

Jan 15, 2016 at 11:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

Any research carried out with the help of publically funded research grants should automatically subject to FOI.

Jan 15, 2016 at 11:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Homewood

There is a move to allow charities to be allowed to get involved in active political lobbying.

Convenient timing.

Jan 15, 2016 at 11:47 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

21st century equivalent of the catholic church, secret, infallible, and in charge of handing out the dogma, and all at your expense.

Jan 15, 2016 at 12:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterLeo Smith

'All animals are equal - but some are more equal than others....'

George Orwell must be spinning in his grave....

Jan 15, 2016 at 12:52 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

@Paul Homewood 11:43

I completely agree.

Jan 15, 2016 at 12:54 PM | Unregistered Commentermeltemian

Mark Stoval:
“In what philosophy of science does one find that the "scientist" should hide his work, data, methods, and so forth?”

Fortunately some scientists are trying to remedy this state of affairs. Step forward Stephan Lewandowsky:

Jan 15, 2016 at 1:03 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

geoffchambers, known associates of Lewandowsky won't listen to a word of criticism, and claim/plead/shout conspiracy.

Jan 15, 2016 at 1:17 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Jan 15, 2016 at 8:51 AM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones:

"Many people on this blog believe that the universities could be regulated into doing genuinely useful work."

Wow! So that's what a straw man looks like...

Moving on to serious consideration of the matter, the biggest problem with permitting a cost factor into FoI is (and has always been) that it is the ones spending the dosh that get to complain that they are spending too much on responses, when the nature of their expenditure has, quite often, prompted the FoI request in the first place.

From the linked article:

"[The Russell Group of universities] said ‘universities are not public bodies’ and also complained that the cost of answering FoI queries was prohibitively high, with members spending £1.1million doing this in 2014, based on an estimate of £155 per request."

That's a calculation, based on nothing at all, worthy of Michael Mann. The universities' argument is outrageous, to begin with, since they are publicly funded and should be publicly accountable. The fact that they try to justify their case, not with accurate accounts, but with back-of-the-envelope numbers, based on randomly invented values, just demands derision.

Jan 15, 2016 at 1:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

George Orwell must be spinning in his grave....
Pissing himself laughing more like, Sherlock!

Jan 15, 2016 at 1:39 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Owen, is that the total spend? If so, that works out to an average of £45,833 per Russell Group university. Why would this be a problem? And if it is a problem, might I suggest that it is take out of the fat salaries mentioned in the linked article.

Jan 15, 2016 at 1:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterCB

Come to think of it, I am volunteering my services to a Russell Group university that is so strapped for cash, allegedly, that it claims on financial grounds to be unable to handle FoI requests. I'd have to operate remotely, but all this stuff is electronic, these days, so I'd need only a few userids and passwords and then I'd be up and running. I'd also need unlimited access, of course, since a respected Russell Group university wouldn't want to be accused of hiding anything from the public.

I am not offering to do the whole job unaided, naturally, but I'd lighten the load for the poor Morlocks who are sentenced to satisfy FoI requests today and, crucially, I'd help the universities respond to requests which might otherwise challenge their budgets.

Jan 15, 2016 at 1:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

Methinks they want to use tricks to hide the decline in educational standards?

Jan 15, 2016 at 2:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterStacey

To CB, Jan 15, 2016 at 1:51 PM:

Those are their own quoted figures. I haven't done the maths, because the universities' numbers seem drawn out of thin air, in any case.

Jan 15, 2016 at 2:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

Owen Morgan 2:22, don't you trust the Russell Group of Universtities to be honest with financial information?

Jan 15, 2016 at 3:20 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

How many FOI requests have geuinely caused financial burden to an organisation?


How many FOI requests have resulted in lost commercial opportunity?


How many FOI requests have revealed incompetence, waste of resource or malpractice?

Which of the above has the greatest benefit to society?

Jan 15, 2016 at 3:21 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Fast Fingers Bishop eh!!! :)



Jan 15, 2016 at 3:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

I presume most if not all have some formcharitable status. That means thay get special tax treatment etc. A few FOI's on Kids Company wouldn't have gone amiss and same would be true for Universities where dodginess is suspected as there is no way one could expect any government to do rigorous checking..

Jan 15, 2016 at 6:18 PM | Unregistered Commenterson of mulder

Money without accountability

For three pounds a month you can adopt a Polar Bear from the WWF

See BBC watchdog have to say about it.

Jan 15, 2016 at 9:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamspid

One further thought: supposing the government supports this move against FoI and someone dares to challenge that decision in the courts, will the universities be spending their own (i.e. taxpayers') money to pursue the case, or will they be relying on government (i.e. taxpayers') money to tide them over?

Jan 16, 2016 at 5:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

Ok, speaking as university professor with some involvement in management
1) "Publicly-funded research should be public"- yes (give or take stuff which is classified);
2) "arguably teaching also publicly funded and so should be public"-well..sometimes. You should see how many overseas students my department has- it's over 50%. They massively subsidise our (often otherwise unfunded) research and our home students. Nevertheless, I can't see any reason ever not to make what we teach public. Indeed, I would love to see some of the nuttier, social justice stuff made a lot more public.
3) FOI is not onerous in cost terms- agreed.

A little bit of pushback.
a) each year we are told (rightly, IMHO) to find more of our money from sources other than the public purse. As a taxpayer and a scientist, I'm right behind this (although wouldn't dare say so in many forums in my university). However, simultaneously, the public and the governement seem to treat us increasingly as "public bodies" owned by the state. You can't have it both ways! I believe we should be largely private (and less large) but the quid pro quo would be that we were largely independent. We are heading slowly in that direction.

b) Fear of FOI requests has a deadening effect on communication. It means that we are often unable to say what we think (in emails or by letter) because we fear it would give offence in the wrong hands, or indeed give away things we have a duty to keep confidential. I know the counterarguments. But bluntly, "transparency" often makes things much more opaque.
This may be a (non-monetary) cost worth paying, but there definitely is a significant cost there.

Jan 16, 2016 at 10:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterClovis Sangrail

Jan 16, 2016 at 10:05 AM |. Clovis Sangrail:

"However, simultaneously, the public and the government seem to treat us increasingly as "public bodies" owned by the state.''

You made some pretty fair arguments, although I don't really see how any of them amounts to a justification for resisting FoI. Ultimately, entities in receipt of any public funds should not be permitted to dispose of those funds without being accountable.

I singled out the comment above for two reasons. To begin with, it slightly contradicts your own argument. You say that foreign contributions are increasingly important to university departments. That's understandable and not just for financial reasons. Sometimes, the foreign applicants just are better (I'm no academic, but I know a few). I quibble, however, with your use of "increasingly", because the concept of "public" universities has been around for a very long time. That's why, in Britain, only Buckingham has ever previously described itself as "private".

Secondly, if anything reinforces the public notion of the universities as "public", things for which the taxpayer is obliged to pay, willy-nilly, it's the antics of the more vocal (and, dare I speculate?) less actively studious students, who conspicuously demand that the taxpayer picks up the tab for absolutely everything, usually while breaking things.

The universities may well have better things on which to spend money than FoI requests, but, if they made their accounts less like the Great Grimpen Mire in the first place, responding to FoI wouldn't be so painful. Also, their current attitude, although complaining loudly about costs, is actually a ploy to be lifted out of the reach of FoI altogether, which should not be allowed, under any circumstances.

Jan 16, 2016 at 5:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

Universities (at least the old universities, the situation is a bit more complex for the ex-polytechnics) are not public bodies: they are private charitable bodies which receive public funds for some of their activities (principally research; direct public funding of teaching is pretty small in these days of 9K fees, though one can argue over whether the indirect subsidy of the loans system funds the students or the universities or both). See for a slightly more detailed discussion.

There should, of course, be some accountability for expenditure of public funds, but it's not self evident precisely what form that should take: we don't make every body which supplies good or services to HMG be covered by FOI.

I'm not arguing either side of the issue here, just pointing out that things are not quite as simple as some people think.

Jan 16, 2016 at 8:46 PM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones

@Owen Morgan
There is much in what you say. And I agree: I DO NOT think universities should resist FOI requests. I think this behaviour is despicable..
See, however, Jonathon Jones's comments. I think you are labouring undre a misapprehension that the opposite of private in this context is public. Buckingham is private because it does not seek to be eligible for any public funding (I think). Most UK universities which are not ex-polys are charitable institutions which in the US, would be closer to a "private, not-for profit" than a public unversity.
Never mind, we agree largely on the big issue!

Jan 16, 2016 at 9:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterClovis Sangrail

FOI? F*** Other Ideas ?

Jan 18, 2016 at 1:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohnM

The malignant corruption of the social madness obsessed with climate infects and degrades everything, especially ethics and transparency.

Jan 18, 2016 at 4:59 AM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

There are three possibilities:

If a uni takes any public money then all of what it does will be up for FOI
If a uni takes public money the work it does with that will be up for FOI
If a uni takes public money none of what it does is up for FOI

If I am partly paying their wages though taxation the third option is unacceptable in my opinion.

Jan 19, 2016 at 3:40 PM | Unregistered Commenterclovis marcus

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