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WrittenevidencefromUniversityofOxford BRIEFINTRODUCTIONTOTHEUNIVERSITY 1. The University of Oxford has over 21,000 students, comprising 11,723 undergraduates and 9,327 postgraduates, and over 10,000 employees. External research grants and contracts are the Universitys largest source of income, amounting to 376.7 million in 201011(41%oftotalincome).TheUniversityconsistentlyhasthehighestresearchincome fromexternalsponsorsofanyUKuniversity.IsisInnovationLimited,theUniversityswholly owned technology transfer company, has createdmore than 70 companies, and files, on average, more than one patent application each week. Oxford was placed fourth in the TimesHigherEducation2011rankingsofworlduniversities. EXECUTIVESUMMARY 2. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) places a significant strain on the Universitys resources, and provides inadequate protection against unreasonable and obsessive requesters, who impose a disproportionate burden. It also poses a risk to the Universitys ability to conduct worldleading research, particularly in collaboration with private companies,andtoraiseprivatefunds.WhilstreinforcingtheUniversitysowninitiativesto introduce a more open organisational culture, the FOIA has complicated the Universitys decisionmaking process by discouraging staff from expressing themselves openly and honestlyinwriting.Consequently,itcanbeanobstacletogoodgovernance. STRUCTURE 3.ThissubmissionexaminesfirsttheimpactoftheFOIAintheareasofresources,research, fundraising and decisionmaking. It then addresses the three specific questions raised by thecommitteeinitscallforevidence. IMPACTOFTHEFOIA Resources Numbers 4.ThefollowingtableshowsthenumberofrequestsreceivedbytheUniversity,compared with the monthly average for the higher education sector as a whole, as indicated by the annualsurveyconductedbyJISC.

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Year 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 Totalnumberofrequests 1 185 158 137 185 201 261 330 Monthlyaverage 15.4 13.2 11.4 15.4 16.8 21.8 27.5 Monthlysectoraverage N/A 3.2 3.6 5.4 8.2 10.6 Notyetavailable

5.Afteraninitialflurryofrequestsinthefirstyearofoperation,thenumbertailedoffinthe secondandthirdyears.However,inlinewiththesectorasawhole,thenumberhasrisen significantlyeachyearsince2008. 6.Themostimmediateimpacthasbeenanincreaseintheresourcesdevotedspecificallyto respondingtoFOIrequests.Thesehavegrownfrom0.5FTEin2005to1.5FTEin2011,and are planned, subject to the availability of funds, to rise to 2.0 in 2012/13. This cost is not insignificant at a time when the Universitys funding is under severe pressure. Equally important is the opportunity cost imposed on those employed to undertake other duties, whetherteaching,researchoractivitiesthatsupportteachingandresearch.Wearenotable toquantifythiscostbutcanprovidesomeillustrativeexamples. a) In the last 12 months, one academic with responsibility for managing admissions to a course has to date spent a total of approximately 30 hours providing information in response to multiple requests from one individual, whofeelsaggrievedatbeingrejectedforthecoursesome10yearsago.Allbut one of these requests related to the course but, because the precise informationsoughtineachcasewasdifferent,andwasfarremovedfromthe data produced routinely to meet normal business purposes, each one had to becompletedasaseparatetaskandrequiredsignificanteffort. b) A request for research data from a large national study, submitted by a company with a commercial interest in the data, disrupted the work of the researchersconcernedforayearandresultedinsignificantlegalcosts.Further disruption and cost were avoided only because the company decided not to submitacomplainttotheICO,forreasonswhichappeartohavebeenrelated toatakeover. c) The Undergraduate Admissions Office is staffed to coordinate the annual admissionsprocess,toconductoutreachwork,toencourageapplicationsfrom nontraditionalsources,andtoprovideadmissionsstatisticsforpublicationon theUniversityswebsite.Butitalsohastorespondtorequestsforinformation under the FOIA, whichdivert resources(approximately 1.0 FTE) from its core functions. Undergraduate admissions has consistently been the single most popular topic for FOI requests and accounted for about a quarter of all requestsin2011.
1

Excludes routine requests

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7. It might be thoughtthat the proactive publication of information would help to reduce thenumberofrequests.Thishasnotbeenourexperience.Since2005therehasbeenasea changeintheamountofinformationpublishedontheUniversityswebsite,particularlyin respect of admissions (graduate as well as undergraduate) and enrolled students 2 . However, this has not led to any reduction in either the total number of requests or the numberrelatingtothesubjectmatterofthepublishedinformation.Thisisbecauserequests ofteninvolveavariation(howeverslight)onthepublisheddata,forexample,requestsfor applicationsandoffersrelatingtospecificschools.Inaddition,peopleprobablyfinditeasier to submit a FOI request than to search a website, even when the data in which they are interestediswellsignposted. Complexorvexatiousrequestsfromhighlymotivatedindividuals 8.ThefiguresaboveobscurethefactthatmostoftheresourceexpendedonFOIrequestsis likelytoarisefromarelativelysmallnumberofcomplexrequestsfromindividualsusingthe FOIA to pursue a personal or political agenda. The individuals concerned often have a grievance against the institution and are using the FOIA as a means of retaliating against thosetheyfeelhavewrongedtheme.g.thecasereferredtoinparagraph6(a)above. 9. Some of these requests might reasonably be regarded as vexatious and therefore as fallingwithinthescopeofSection14oftheFOIA.However,thethresholdsetbytheICOfor applying this provision is very high. A request must satisfy at least two of the following criteria:itmustbeobsessive,itmustharasstheauthority,distressstaff,imposeasignificant burden,causedisruptionorlackanyseriouspurposeorvalue.Toassembleacasebasedon these grounds is timeconsuming and difficult. Even if one can make a sufficiently strong case, the FOIA provides little incentive to do so, since Section 14 can apply only to the request, not the requester. It enables a public authority to refuse to respond to an individuals request No. 50 but provides no defence against request No.51. In practice therefore it is easier for an authority to respond to a vexatious request than attempt to applySection14. 10.Toreducetheburdenposedbyobsessiveandunreasonablerequesters,werecommend that where a request is found to be vexatious by the ICO, the public authority concerned should be entitled to refuse any further requests from that individual for a period of six months. This would provide significant respite for the public authority, whilst providing a coolingoffperiodfortheindividual. Research 11.TheFOIAhasmadeitmoredifficultfortheUniversitytopursuecollaborativeprojects with private companies. Companies worry about the effect that the disclosure of informationaboutaprojectwillhaveontheirbusinessortheirabilitytoexploitintellectual property rights. To try to assuage these concerns, the University has to engage in lengthy andcomplexnegotiationswithcommercialpartnersoverthetreatmentofFOIAinresearch contracts.Recentexamplesincludealargemultinationalthatrefusedtosignacontractfora studentshipworth24,000ayear;amajorUKcompanythatrequiredtheUniversitytouse itsbestendeavourstoensureanydisclosedinformationwastreatedasconfidentialandto
2

http://www.ox.ac.uk/gazette/statisticalinformation/#d.en.6207

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cooperate with it in any action it took to resist or narrow disclosure; and a further multinationalthataskedforaclausethatwouldallowittosuetheUniversityifitdisagreed withitsresponsetoarequestundertheFOIA. 12.Ifresearchdataisreleasedprematurelyandinapiecemealfashion,beforetheresults havebeenvalidatedthroughpeerreview,thereisarealriskthattheconsequentpublicity, which will inevitably involve an element of sensationalism, will lead to inaccurate and misleadingperceptions,whichcoulddamagethecredibilityoftheresearch,aswellasthe reputationoftheindividualsinvolved,reducingtheirchancesofobtainingresearchgrantsin future. Funders of research in universities recognise that making research data available publiclyisacomplexissue,whichneedstobetreateddifferentlyfromothertypesofdata. The following statement from the website of the Engineering and Physical Sciences ResearchCouncilrecognisesthatresearchdatashouldbereleasedonlywhenitisready: EPSRC expects that research organisations will make appropriate use of the provisions availableinthelegislationtoguardagainstinappropriatereleaseofresearchdatawhich mightdamagethecollaborativeresearchprocess,andworkagainstthenationalinterests oftheUK,Inthisregard,EPSRCviewstheuseofappropriateconfidentialityagreements andpublicationplansasessentialelementsofresearchmanagementstrategy. 3 13. Section 22 of the FOIA provides an exemption for information intended for future publication.TheUniversityhasusedthisonanumberofoccasionstoresistthepremature release of information about research projects. However, the exemption provides no defenceagainstrequestsfortheunderlyingdata,sincethiswillnotnormallybepublished. TheProtectionofFreedomsBillrequirespublicauthoritiestoreleaserawdataproactively by including within their publication schemes any datasets disclosed in response to a request under the FOIA. We anticipate that research will be one area where we will face requestsfordatasetsandthatthedisclosureofsuchdata,inadvanceofthecompletionofa study,runstheriskofdamagingthatresearch,forthereasongiveninparagraph12above. Toprotecttheintegrityofdataandthecredibilityoftheresearchersinvolved,westrongly support amending the FOIA to provide an exemption specifically for prepublication researchdata,asexistsintheScottishFOIA.Weemphasisethatsuchanexemptionshould applyonlyattheprepublicationstage.Oncetheresultsofastudyhavebeenpublished,we recognisetheremaybeapublicinterestinthedisclosureoftheunderlyingdata. 14.TheFOIAalsohasthepotentialtounderminetherelationshipbetweenresearchersand those who voluntarily provide their personal data for the purpose of research. Study participants expect researchers to treat their data asconfidential andnot to disclose it to thirdparties,particularlywhereitrelatestotheirhealthorotherareasofliferegardedas private. The publication of data in an anonymised form does not provide an absolute assuranceofconfidentiality.Ifthedatarelatestoaspecificgroupthatisrelativelysmalland potentially identifiable e.g. people within a particular age range, living within a particular geographicalarea,duringaparticularperiodoftime,whocontractedaparticulardisease,it might be possible to identify individuals by crossreferencing the data with other
3

http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/about/standards/researchdata/Pages/exploitation.aspx

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informationorknowledge,particularlywherethedataisbeinginvestigatedbydetermined andhighlymotivatedindividualsororganisations. 15.Evenifconfidentialityisassured,thereisariskthatpeoplewillnolongerbewillingto volunteertheirdataiftheyknowitcouldbeusedforpurposesdifferentorinimicaltothose forwhichitwasoriginallyprovided.Anindividualwhotakespartinastudyintocancermay not welcome the prospect of their data being made available to companies who have a vestedinterestinmanipulatingthedatatosupportaparticularconclusion.Thecontroversy surrounding the efforts of Phillip Morris to obtain access to a study into the attitudes of youngpeopletosmokingisagoodexample.TheUniversitybelievestherearelikelytobe furthercasessuchasthisifuniversitiesarerequiredtopublishdatasetsrelatingtoresearch inaprematurefashion. Fundraising 16.Fundraisingisofconsiderable(andincreasing)importancetothisUniversityandothers. Thepoolofindividualswhohaveboththefinancialresourcestomakemajordonationsand thewillingnesstodosoisverylimited.Anobvioussourceofprospectsisthosewithan existingconnectiontotheUniversity.However,theUniversityalsoseekstoattractmajor donorswhodonothaveanexistingUniversityconnection.Itisofcourseinherentlymore difficulttoattractthosewithoutanexistinglink. 17. The small pool of potential major donors will inevitably face a number of competing claimsontheirattention.Increasingly,theirwealthislikelytobederivedfromactivitieson a global scale. Their philanthropy is likewise global, ranging across a number of different countries and different types of recipient. Oxford and other top UK universities face international competition in their fundraising activities, particularly from Ivy League universitiesintheUSA. 18.Thefactofadonationmaywellbemadepublic,andindeedadonormayhaveastrong desire for recognition and publicity. However, the discussions leading to the offer and acceptance of a donation are a different matter altogether. Donors and potential donors expect confidentiality and privacy in their dealings with the University prior to any announcement. 19.Inourviewanydisclosurelikelytodiscourageadonorfromgivingtoauniversitywould harm its commercial interests. It should be possible therefore to apply the exemption in Section43(2)oftheFOIA,relatingtoinformationprejudicialtothecommercialinterestsof anyperson.Inourexperience,however,theICOappliesanexcessivelynarrowdefinitionof commercialinterest,takingtheviewthatitrelatesonlytoapublicauthoritysparticipation in the purchase or sale of goods and services in a competitive market. Such an approach effectively precludes a university from applying Section 43(2) to fundraising activities, at least at the stage of ICO consideration. In a case involving the University of Central Lancashire, the then Information Tribunal adopted a broader definition of commercial interest,whichwouldappeartoallowtheinclusionofactivitiessuchasfundraisingwithin thescopeofSection43(2) 4 .WearedisappointedthattheICOhasyettoreviseitsguidance on section 43(2) to take account of this decision or to give any other indication that it
4

Case ref: EA/2009/0034

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recognises the potential applicability of Section 43(2) to activities beyond the purchase or saleorgoodsandservices. Decisionmaking 20. In recent years, members of the University have become increasingly aware that any recordedinformationispotentiallydisclosableundertheFOIA(ortheDataProtectionAct (DPA),wheretheinformationconstitutespersonaldata).Thereisanecdotalevidencethat staff,particularlythoseoccupyingdecisionmakingpositions,aremorereluctanttocommit theirviewstopaperandthatwherethisisunavoidable,theyaremorecircumspectinwhat theysay.Minutesofmeetingsareincreasinglywrittenwithdisclosureinmind,sothatthey aremoreanodynebutlessvaluableasarecordofdiscussion.Futurehistorianswillregret this.TheexemptioninSection36(2)oftheFOIAisintendedtoprotectthecandourofadvice anddiscussion.Butitisnotusedasoftenasitmightbe,giventheproceduralrequirement toobtaintheopinionofthequalifiedperson(intheUniversityscase,theViceChancellor). Thisopinionhastobereasonableandmusthavebeenreachedinareasonablemanner. ThereisnocorrespondingexemptionundertheDPAandsodecisionmakersareevenmore cautiousinwhattheysayonpaperaboutindividuals. 21.TheDPAappliestoprivatecompaniesaswellaspublicauthorities.However,requesters seeking information from a public authority, with which they had had some sort of prior relationship,effectivelygettwobitesatthecherry,sincetheycanseekinformationunder eitherAct. SPECIFICQUESTIONSRAISEDBYCOMMITTEE 22. The committee has invited respondents to address the following three issues (whilst welcomingcommentsonotherissues). a) DoestheFreedomofInformationActworkeffectively? b) WhatarethestrengthsandweaknessesoftheFreedomofInformationAct? c) IstheFreedomofInformationActoperatinginthewaythatitwasintendedto? 23.Wewilladdresstheseissuestogether,astheyseemtoustobecloselyinterrelatede.g. anyweaknessoftheFOIAislikelytobeanexampleofitnotworkingeffectivelyorinthe wayitwasintendedto. 24.TheoverarchingobjectiveoftheUniversityis theadvancementoflearningbyteaching andresearchanditsdisseminationbyeverymeans.Ourresponsemustthereforebebased on an assessment of whether the FOIA has helped or hindered our ability to fulfil this objective. 25. The University accepts that any organisation in receipt of public funds must be accountable for its expenditure of those funds and that openness and transparency are essential to that process (as well as being desirable ends in their own right). There have beensignificantadvancesintheseareas,whichhaveoccurredindependentlyoftheFOIA. For example, the introduction of a student contract has made clear what the student can expect in terms of teaching and support and what the University expects in return for providing that teaching and support. As mentioned above, there has also been a vast

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increaseintheamountofinformationthattheUniversitypublishesonitswebsite.TheFOIA hashelpedtoreinforcethistrendtowardsgreateropenness. 26. The FOIA was intended to improve the quality of decisionmaking, as well as promote openness and transparency. We do not believe that the FOIA has improved the quality of theUniversitysdecisionmaking.Onthecontrary,ithasmadethedecisionmakingprocess more complex, for the reasons in paragraph 20 above. The University also has concerns abouttheimpactoftheFOIAonresearchandfundraising,forthereasonsinparagraphs11 to 19 above, and does not believe that it was the intention of the FOIA to impair the conductofresearchortheabilityofuniversitiestoraiseprivatefunds. February2012