NMA: FOI Exemption for Universities Could Hide £4bn from Public Scrutiny

Removing universities from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act could remove nearly £4 billion of taxpayers’ money from public scrutiny, more than the budget of some central Government departments, the News Media Association has said today.

Responding to Government proposals to make universities exempt from the FOI Act, the NMA has argued that universities are “powerful institutions that exercise important public functions” which must be accountable to the public.

New research conducted by the NMA using FOI has revealed the huge gulf between universities’ investment in communications and marketing and their investment in managing FOI requests. The NMA sent FOI requests to 20 Russell Group universities based in England and 16 replied. Key findings from the exercise include:

  • The 16 universities which responded employ a total of 284 “communications officers” between them compared to just 26 members of staff who have FOI listed as all or part of their duties.
  • Only three of the 16 universities employ a dedicated FOI officer.
  • Cambridge University employs 85 communications officers and not a single dedicated FOI officer, while the University of Birmingham said it would cost too much to count all of theirs.

According to figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, higher education institutions in England are receiving £3.97 billion this year in public funding through the Higher Education Funding Council – more than the budget of some central Government departments and that of other major public authorities, such as the London Metropolitan Police (£3.16 billion) and Birmingham City Council (£3.17 billion).

If universities were exempt from FOI, the rising salaries of top management at universities would be hidden from the public gaze, the NMA has said, noting that the previous Government had expressed concern about the “substantial upward drift” of top management salaries.

NMA legal, policy and regulatory affairs advisor Lucy Gill said: “Universities are powerful institutions that exercise important public functions, such as controlling access to the professions, awarding degrees and the ability to discipline members.

“The educational responsibilities of universities are crucial to the future and standing of individuals, generations and the entire nation. Their research choices and priorities determine the future of scientific progress, critical thinking and artistic achievement in this country.

“Universities are also responsible for the welfare of hundreds of thousands of young people and exert considerable power in their local communities as employers, landowners, property developers and as partners to business and industry. This combination of power and public funding makes universities precisely the kind of institution that FOI was intended to render accountable.”

As part of the news media industry’s response to the Government’s review of the FOI Act, the NMA is campaigning for FOI to be strengthened by extending it to cover private sector companies contracted to carry out public services, and for a statutory limit on the length of time that public authorities can spend carrying out a review of a refusal notice to be introduced.


The NMA sent FOI Act requests to 20 Russell Group universities based in England and 16 replied. The information has been used as part of the NMA’s submission to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills consultation on proposals for higher education reform which closes tomorrow (Friday 15 January