What information do universities record – and what might be requested?

Times Higher Education reporter David Matthews wrote about “stumbling blocks” to university transparency this month – and in the process highlighted some useful tips for those wanting to investigate higher education. Here are the highlights:

Who makes the decisions?

Most universities publish minutes of governing council and senate meetings online, Matthews reports – albeit anything from 3 to 12 months afterwards.

But Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, points out that these are often not the places where decisions are made. Instead:

“Decisions in universities are “taken informally by a small group of people” around the vice-chancellor, who then get the council to “rubber-stamp” their decisions, he says.

“These small groups – sometimes called the executive board or university executive committee – do not make public the minutes of their meetings. They should do, von Prondzynski argues, otherwise you end up with decisions “that nobody gets to review or understand”.

Those minutes should, however, be subject to an FOI request. Likewise “important subcommittees” identified in the article, “covering, for example, research or ethics policy, that feed their deliberations up to the governing council.”

For details on a particular university’s committees try searching the university website using the phrase site:youruniversity.ac.uk (replacing youruniversity.ac.uk with the domain of the particular website). Here’s an example of a listing of committees from Loughborough.

If members of the committees are named, you might want to contact them to find out what sort of decisions are made and whether the minutes are available on paper, or online. This could save weeks on an unnecessary FOI request – not to mention the FOI officer’s time.

Follow the money

Universities do publish annual reports (try a search for “annual report” site:youruniversity.ac.uk to find one on a particular university site – add filetype:pdf if you still struggle) which include details of vice-chancellors’ pay and pension packages. But bonuses – which can amount to tens of thousands of pounds – can be hard to spot, Matthews notes.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) is another useful source of financial information. According to that body:

“In 2011- 12, about 45 per cent of university income came from what could be described as private sources such as student tuition fees, charity- and industry-funded research, and catering services.”

Sources of data

HESA collects an enormous amount of data on “students (including gender, ethnicity, domicile, degree class, school background, socio-economic background, accommodation type), staff, finances, business and community interaction, graduate destinations and university estates.”

HMI Education has reported previously on higher education data sources including UCAS, HESA, BIS and higher education funding councils. Matthews also mentions the Higher Education Better Regulation Group, whose 2010 report identified “544 types of data institutions had to collect, for a host of different organisations (although some are needed only if a university runs a particular course or is in a specific part of the UK).”

That figure appears to come from a dataset linked in this article on HESA’s site (summary). The data shows 543 rows of returns that the sample of 48 institutions identified.

There are almost 290 organisations listed in the data, including:

  • Representative bodies such as the 1994 Group and Russell Group
  • Local and health authorities such as York City Council and London Strategic Health Authority (SHA).
  • Central government departments including the DfE and BIS, but also the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and Department of Health
  • EU bodies such as EU Energy Regulation
  • Bodies that certify courses and institutions, such as EcoCampus and the Institute of Physics
  • Commercial bodies including EdExcel and Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd
  • Media organisations including the Financial Times, The Virgin Guide and Sunday Times

It’s a list full of possibilities for less obvious sources of data, documents, and stories. Note, however, that not all will be subject to FOI.

Given that many of the bodies are regional, it is safe to say that the actual total of data returns is likely to be higher than 543 were all universities surveyed. However, it also suggests that the figure of 544 ‘types of data’ may be misleading, not only because numerous regional authorities, agencies and certifying bodies are likely to be requesting the same types of data, but also because each return may contain more than one type of data.

Simeon Underwood, academic registrar at the London School of Economics, says:

“They can show how the student body changes over time, which students drop out, and so on. In time, they will provide the main evidence for whether the new tuition fees regime has or has not increased recruitment from disadvantaged socio-economic groups. But their cost and cost-effectiveness are rarely subject to scrutiny.”

Increasing amounts of such data is also being made available through Key Information Sets and Unistats, while Matthews reports that:

“Organisations such as Which? and bestcourse4me have also got in on the act, using this information in websites aimed at students and their parents … Applicants have details on course costs, satisfaction rates, the proportion of time spent in lectures and average graduate wages at their fingertips”

The Student Loans Company is also mentioned as one organisation whose data (on staff roles and wages) is published on data.gov.uk. Student loans data is published separately on the same site by BIS, while the tag ‘student loans’ brings up 5 results in total.

Students wanting to know how their tuition fees are spent, however, cannot. And although the sector has been “urged … to produce a pie chart for each course showing where students’ money was going” and HEFCE is “considering whether to make public more detailed expenditure data on teaching, research and other areas” as part of Trac: a the Transparent Approach to Costing, there are issues with the concept.

“Breaking this down at course level would be difficult and would require even more form-filling by academics, Hefce says. More Trac paperwork would also conflict with the White Paper’s call to have the process “radically streamlined”.

“It is more likely that Hefce will release a spending breakdown by institution, although the funding council cautions that detail could be limited by competition law.”

It may well be that education data follows a pattern set in the NHS, where the numbers of outcomes being recorded has been cut while less rigorous ‘customer satisfaction’ data has been given increased power and prominence.

Stumbling blocks to transparency

The focus of Matthews’s article is on increasing competition in the higher education sector as a source of potentially decreased transparency, as universities attempt to use commercial confidentiality to decline FOI requests (guidance on this is available here), while others fear repercussions from universities themselves.

This has already affected UCAS, who this year refused to publish data on university applications on the grounds that it might conflict with competition law.

There’s also a useful point about whistleblowing in academia and the use of ‘gagging clauses’:

“According to the responses to a THE FoI request, in the three years to 2012, 73 universities signed 192 non-disclosure agreements with staff who had been bringing a case before an employment tribunal but settled before a full hearing.”

The sector has also demonstrated an unusually strong opposition to Freedom of Information, which FOI Man explores here. Previously to this guidance was issued to universities on dealing with FOI requests, which may be useful to quote in your own requests.

More generally, it is also useful to elaborate on the costs and benefits of FOI to higher education, described in that guidance, but also in Matthews’ article:

“FoI requests do not always cost the sector money – they can do the opposite. Gibbons once received a request for Soas’ directors’ expenses. When these were examined, it was realised that more of the costs could have been covered by outside organisations, saving the institution about £9,000. The value of FoI requests is in their unpredictability, he says, which makes them “a useful check on things that you haven’t thought to have audited”.”

On costs, JISC InfoNet said “a FOI request takes a university an average of 5 hours 2 minutes to respond, at a cost of £99 rising to £121 when employment overheads are taken into consideration.”

Finally, with all this data available there is a warning, from Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick:

“The demand for transparent data to operate as a kind of substitute for knowledge or truth is part of a culture of ‘immediacy’,” he thinks, which is “anathema to knowledge, and to education, both of which require time, delay, and the mediations of thinking.”

It is that mediation which a journalist can add – when reporting fairly, accurately, and with other sources.

About Paul Bradshaw

Founder of Help Me Investigate. I'm a visiting professor at City University London's School of Journalism, and run an MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University. I publish the Online Journalism Blog, and am the co-author of the Online Journalism Handbook and Magazine Editing (3rd edition). I have a particular interest in Freedom of Information and data journalism.
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