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 seventh consecutive year, seen another marked increase with an average monthly number of requests received per institution of 10.4 in 2011 compared with 8.6 in 2010 (having started from a base of just 2.8 per institution in 2005).
The number of all requests (FOI, DPA and EIR) in 2011 has shown significant regional differences; on average, institutions based in the North West continued for the second year to lead with 177 queries, followed by London-based institutions, with 174 queries, while on the other end of the spectrum, universities based in the West Midlands dealt with an average of 94.
As in the previous year, the burden of the FOI, EIR and DPA requests appears not to be in direct correlation to the institution’s size as measured by student Full Time Equivalent (FTE). The universities with a population of students between 25k and 30k had the highest average number of requests of 198, while the biggest (over 35k student FTE) received on average 145 requests during 2011.
Similar to 2010, 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 194 queries, compared with post-1992 universities with 133 such requests.
In 2011, the month of January 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 15.5, compared with the quietest month of April with 7.9 queries per institution. This pattern hasn’t been consistent from one year to the next as last year April attracted the highest average number of queries with 16.2 per institution.
The highest numbers of FOI requests were in relation to ‘Financial information’ and ‘Student issues and numbers’ both of which at 18% of all requests received represented the highest totals seen for these categories since the start of the survey in 2005. At the other end of the spectrum, requests relating to ‘Teaching and assessment’ fell to their lowest level since the survey began, representing just 5% of the requests received.
As with all previous years journalists continued to be the most active category of requester submitting 24% of all FOI queries in 2011, followed by ‘Members of the public’ (16%) (a new category introduced for 2011) and ‘Commercial Organisations’ (9%). Given the very nature of EIR it is perhaps unsurprising that the majority of EIR requests were submitted by ‘Members of the public’ and ‘Campaigning Groups’ which represented 23% and 21% respectively.
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 63% in 2010 to 59% in 2011. The figures for requests ‘disclosed in part’ and those ‘fully withheld’ are also broadly in line with previous levels at 16% and 8% respectively. This last figure, relating to the percentage of requests received which have been fully withheld, is in line with previous years and consistent with the average of 8.3% across the past 7 years data, suggesting a genuine and continuing commitment to openness across the sector.
The data in relation to exemptions applied shows some interesting trends this year. For the first time Section 12 (Excessive cost of compliance) was the most heavily used exemption accounting for 28% of all exemptions applied during 2011. Although operating at a much lower level both Section 23 (Information supplied by or relating to security bodies) and Section 24 (National security) have also continued to rise in use over the past two years. Section 23 accounted for 4% of all exemptions applied in 2011 compared with 2% in 2010 and 1% in 2009; whilst use of Section 24 also now stands at 4%, compared with 3% last year and 2% in 2009. Meanwhile, in the other direction 2011 witnessed a significant fall in the application of Section 21 (Information reasonably accessible to the applicant by other means) which dropped as a percentage of all exemptions applied from 26% in 2009, down to 23% in 2010 and just 13% in 2011.
Bearing these trends in mind the conclusion could be drawn that the sector is beginning to see a significant change in the nature of the requests received, both in terms of their increasing scale but also away from the routine and ‘trivial’ in favour of issues of substance affecting not only the individual institutions themselves but possibly the broader interests of the wider sector and beyond.
This suspicion that the size, scale and complexity of requests received may be increasing is also further reinforced by the data regarding the time spent actively working on FOI requests. In 2010 just 1% of requests received were reported as taking more than 5 days active effort to resolve whereas by 2011 this figure had risen to 30%. And yet despite this apparent evidence of an increased burden on the sector, the total number of FOI and EIR requests not completed within 20 working days in 2011 represented only 6.4% of all requests received; a small increase on the 5.4% reported in 2010.
We must, of course, be careful not to draw too many conclusions with regards to the resources being expended on responding to FOI requests based solely on the data from this survey which is necessarily ‘broad brush’ in its scope. It is for this reason that JISC infoNet has commissioned 7 institutions to record in detail the time and staff involved in answering a number of requests each have received during the month of January 2012. The results of this project, due in March 2012 will, for the first time, provide robust and detailed data regarding the true cost of answering FOI requests.
The results of the 2011 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 sector’s funding still as yet unresolved it is likely that the media and public spotlight will remain on institutions into 2012 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.