Open universities uphold the right to speak and to know — in order to support involvement in governance and accountability of management.

The Freedom of Information Act (2000) provides access to information held by your University. This might include grievance data, use of non-disclosure agreements, sexual harassment statistics, retention numbers, staff sickness frequency, as well as public actions against bullying (rather than words). This might also include access to policy documents or minutes of meetings in which controversial decisions are taken.

Universities often comply grudgingly with the Freedom of Information Act, citing costs or operational reasons for failing to provide information. If you make a Freedom of Information request and it is denied — even after appeal – then you have the right to bring the matter to the attention of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who will examine the case.

You can also raise matters with the ICO about treatment of your own personal data. For example, you may face a problem accessing personal information from a University, or you may be unhappy about how your University has handled your own information. Again, the University has to be given time to sort the matter out before you appeal to the ICO. The ICO is a last resort.

Data on complaints to the ICO over the period 01/2020 to 09/2023 have been acquired by the 21 Group and we will examine the material over the next few blog postings.

We start by looking at complaints raised by the Russell Group of 24 (self-described) world-class and research intensive Universities. For the worst-performing 10 Universities, we show the total number of IOC complaints, as well as the number adjusted for University size (total number of academic and administrative employees taken from university websites).

Oxford University tops both lists. It generated the largest absolute number of complaints. Its premier position remained even after allowing for the size of the University. Cambridge and University College, London follow in terms of absolute numbers. However, the ‘Golden Triangle’ is broken up by the University of Southampton which — given its size — provided a surprisingly large number of ICO complaints.

Universities that generate lots of complaints to the ICO are closed, not open. This may indicate a poor culture in the University with a combative or secretive attitude to providing information on how the University is run. This may also indicate a cavalier attitude to protecting employer’s personal data. A well run University that is open, responsive and consensual should not be generating lots of complaints to the ICO.

Categories: Blog

1 Comment

Anonymous · 29 January 2024 at 01:45

Ah, yes, the “world-class and research-intensive universities.” Unfortunately, it really doesn’t surprise me that they top the list in terms of ICO complaints, but I suppose that they can conceal all the abuse and hide it all under the glitz and glamour of their research reputations and some strategic press attention (as some of the non-Russell group universities are also doing).

Though I’ve been tempted to, I’ve never bothered making a freedom of information request to my former university. The costs involved and the amount of obstacles that I anticipate would be put in my way to prevent me from seeing what kinds of invasion and distortion of private data had occurred, and presumably still do (and, in any case, all of the unofficial smear campaigns that they throw your way leave no paper trail), are enough to put me off pursuing it for now. It would likely require me to go to the ICO, and the hurdles seem insurmountable.

Sara Ahmed has written about this eloquently in her book ‘Complaint.’ Soon enough, you realize that what appears at first to be incompetence towards finding a resolution (which would involve accountability of the perpetrator and their enablers) is actually a deliberate but unofficial institutional strategy against whistleblowers. The objective is always to wear the complainant down and destroy any feeling of agency, so they either leave out of disgust and confusion or are silenced through sheer dizzying exhaustion and shame. The administration and senior academics don’t want a resolution; the only resolution they see is your elimination from the institution and sometimes within your field.

Targets typically discover too late that human resources are merely another blunt instrument of the institution used to bludgeon them into silence. HR people aren’t necessarily bad people; some are quite lovely. They just aren’t trained to address complaints and represent the defense of the institution and its reputation above everything else—after all, their jobs depend on it. You soon find out that even the ones with a spark of humanity are still ultimately just a baseball bat wrapped in a couple of layers of bubble wrap, though they usually aren’t even aware of it.

Similarly, other peripheral non-academic figures within an institution can become enthusiastic recruits to your degradation. After my complaint, I was amazed to see the once mild-mannered little IT man begin to jeer and sneer theatrically in my direction whenever he saw me, no doubt emboldened by the thrill that comes from belonging to the attacking group (isn’t that ultimately what it’s all about? a scapegoat that solidifies group cohesion in an otherwise atomized environment?). But of course, by that point, it no longer shocks or even hurts you as you’ve seen the feckless group psychology that holds sway, and by that point, you’ve already lost your faith in the institution and the people who work there a long time ago.

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