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.