As anticipated, the number of requests being made under the Freedom of Information (FOI) and Data Protection Acts (DPA) and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) has continued the general upward trend witnessed in previous years. FOI requests have, for the sixth consecutive year, seen another marked increase with an average monthly number of requests received per institution of 8.6 in 2010 compared with 6.2 in 2009 (having started from a base of just 2.8 per institution in 2005).
The number of all requests (FOI, DPA and EIR) in 2010 has shown significant regional differences; on average, institutions based in the North West processed 238 queries, followed by Scotland South and West, with 182 queries, while universities based in Northern Ireland dealt with an average of 55.
The burden of the FOI requests appears not to be in direct correlation to the institutions’ size as measured by student Full Time Equivalent (FTE). The medium-size universities (20k to 25k student FTEs) generally had the highest average number of requests of 161.
The findings from the survey demonstrate a significant difference in the number of all information requests depending on the type of reporting institution. Those classed as pre-1992 universities, on average, dealt with 133 queries, compared with post-1992 universities with 94 such requests.
The month of April was the busiest in terms of the number of information requests received by the sector in relation to all three information strands with an average of 16.2, compared with the quietest December with 6.5 queries by institution. This pattern hasn’t been consistent from one year to the next, as last year, July attracted the highest average number of queries of 13.2 per institution.
The highest numbers of FOI requests were in relation to ‘HR and staff issues’, which represented 16% of all categories, with ‘Financial Information’ and ‘Management and Administration’ representing 13% each. The numbers suggests public attention may have shifted (at least temporarily) from the student-related issues which dominated last year’s agenda.
Journalists continued to be the most active category of requester submitting 31% of all FOI requests in 2010, followed by ‘Commercial Organisations’ (11%) and ‘Campaigning Groups’ (7%). Given the very nature of EIR it is perhaps unsurprising that the majority of EIR requests were submitted by ‘Campaigning Groups’ which represented 36% of all categories.
Despite the increased demands on the sector in relation to FOI and EIR requests, its reputation for openness and transparency has been maintained with only a slight reduction in the number of requests that were answered in full from 66% in 2009 to 63% in 2010.
In cases of no disclosure or partial disclosure, institutions which participated in the survey reported that most frequently used categories of exemptions were under Section 40 – ‘Personal Information’ representing 25%, followed by Section 21 – ‘Information accessible to the applicant by other means’ – 22% and Section 12 – ‘Exemption where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit’ – 21%.
Institutions which recorded time spent actively working on FOI requests, reported that 85% were processed within a day. This contrasted with 50% of institutions which have taken between 15 and 20 days to fully process an average request. These figures compared to 89% and 40% respectively in 2009.
These figures on percentage split of total elapsed time spent on preparing FOI requests suggest that in 2010 institutions were not as effective at answering requests than in previous years. However, it should also be noted that despite the increased burden on the sector in 2010, the total number of FOI and EIR requests not completed within 20 working days represented only 5.4%; a small increase of 0.9% on 2009.
Rather more surprisingly the number of DPA requests not completed within 40 working days has risen from 3.1% in 2009 to 7% in 2010 with no increase in an average number of requests by institution.
The results of the 2010 survey therefore seem to bear out the anecdotal evidence which emerged throughout last year of a significant increase in the number of requests received. With higher education finding itself at the forefront of debates about cuts in public spending and with many of the issues regarding HE funding still as yet unresolved it is likely that this media and public spotlight will remain on institutions into 2011 and beyond. If and how this manifests itself in the number and range of requests received in the future remains to be seen but from the evidence of this year’s figures it seems it would be prudent for institutions to assume that it will and to prepare accordingly.