FOI & Universities

(Welcome, Bad Science readers!)

A very interesting decision (download it here) by the UK Information Commissioner has been published. A request was made to the University of Central Lancashire for various things, including copies of course material (course notes, PowerPoint presentations, list of recommended textbooks, etc) circulated to students on the BSc in Homeopathy. This course is quite well known due to controversy surrounding the academic/scientific standards in ‘alternative medicine’ courses in higher education, and was closed to new students last year. Ben Goldacre at badscience.net has followed these stories for quite some time – I’d imagine the FOI request is inspired by or related to the criticism of the UCLAN and other degrees. Edit: David Colquhoun, the person who made the request, explains the background here.

The University made some very interesting arguments, most of which were entirely unsuccessful. These were that the information was covered by exemptions in the FOI Act because (my summary):

  • the information is reasonably accessible by other means (i.e. by registering as a student on the course) (rejected as paying 10k in tuition fees is not a reasonable method of access and in any event you do not normally do a course in order to get the materials)
  • disclosure would prejudice the University’s commercial interests, especially with regard to passing on materials to competing private colleges (rejected as the publicly-funded university may have a financial interest but not a commercial one in recruiting students; if it does, then students on the course already have access to the course materials and could as easily sell/distribute course materials in a damaging fashion, therefore disclosure no more likely to cause prejudice)
  • disclosure would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs, though the disruption and cost of numerous other applications under FOI (and copyright points again) (also rejected, no evidence presented that this would the case beyond the mere assertion of the statement)

However, the University did succeed in its argument that some materials (case studies prepared by lecturers based on their own patients/subjects/victims) should be excluded.

This decision may have an impact on universities (as well as those who criticise them) far beyond the question of homeopathy. Indeed, given the well-known exemption from both FOI and data protection of certain materials (such as exam scripts), will universities seek a specific exclusion here, encourage UCLAN to appeal the Information Commissioner’s decision, come up with better arguments against future requests, set fire to course materials – or all four?