The 8th annual Jisc infoNet, GuildHE and Universities UK information legislation and management survey attracted 60 responses.
The topic of information compliance in the Higher Education (HE) sector has never been far from media attention throughout 2012. Despite that, the findings from this now well established survey can probably best be summarised as ‘business as usual’, with the data not showing any major surprises nor major shifts in numbers of the requests submitted to the 60 institutions which participated in the survey.
As anticipated, the number of requests being made under the Freedom of Information (FOI) and Data Protection Acts (DPA) and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) has continued the general upward trend witnessed in previous years but it is noteworthy that the numbers for 2012 indicate less of an increase than in previous years. FOI requests have, for the eighth consecutive year, seen another increase with an average monthly number of requests received per institution of 10.7 in 2012 compared with 10.4 in 2011 (having started from a base of just 2.8 per institution in 2005). Whether this indicates that request numbers are now plateauing is, of course, something which only time will tell.
Size of institution
As in the previous year, the burden of FOI, EIR and DPA requests appears not to be in direct correlation to the institution’s size as measured by student Full Time Equivalent (FTE). The universities with a population of students between 40k and 45k had the highest average number of requests at 411, whilst those falling into the ‘largest institution’ category (over 45k student FTE) received, on average, 154 requests during 2012. However there does appear to be more of a link at the other end of the spectrum, with the smallest institution by student FTE also receiving the lowest number of requests at 31.
Similar to the results for 2011, the month of January was the busiest in terms of the number of information requests received by the sector in relation to all three information strands with an average of 16.6. However the quietest month in 2011, April, has now been replaced in 2012 by December, with 8.3 queries per institution. This ongoing monthly fluctuation from one year to the next doesn’t help institutions predict with any certainty when they will have to brace themselves for the extra burden of responding to the information requests. However, the quarterly analysis is more stable as based on the last three years the numbers for all information requests are consistently the highest in the first quarter of the year, representing 31% of all enquiries in 2012.
2012 saw some shifts in interests in relation to FOI requests. ‘Student issues and numbers’ retained the highest spot with 20%, while ‘Financial information’ which represented 18% of all requests received in 2011, dropped to only 9% in 2012. Meanwhile, ‘HR and staff issues’ represented 16% of all requests received (up from 10% the previous year) and ‘Admissions’ at 11% completed the top three. It is interesting to speculate on whether changes to the funding of the higher education sector and tuition fees have in part led to this increased focus on student related subjects.
As with all previous years, journalists continued to be the most active category of requester submitting 25% of all FOI queries in 2012, followed by ‘Members of the public’ (16%) (a new category introduced for 2011) and ‘Commercial Organisations’ (10%). Given the nature of the EIR it is, perhaps, unsurprising that the majority of EIR requests were submitted by ‘Campaigning Groups’ which represented 40%, followed by ‘Own students’ and ‘Journalists’ both accounting for 12% of all queries.
Despite the increased demands on the sector in relation to FOI and EIR requests, its reputation for openness and transparency has been maintained with a 3% increase in the response rate (62%) for the number of requests that were ‘answered in full’. The figures for requests ‘disclosed in part’ and those ‘fully withheld’ are also broadly in line with previous levels at 15% and 6% respectively. This last figure, relating to the percentage of requests received which have been fully withheld, is the lowest for the past 8 years data, suggesting a genuine and continuing commitment to openness across the sector.
The data in relation to exemptions applied continued the trends noted last year. Section 12 (Excessive cost of compliance) was again the most heavily used, accounting for almost 29% of all exemptions applied during 2012. It was followed by Section 40 (Personal interest) and Section 21 (Information reasonably accessible to the applicant by other means) which represented 24% and 18% respectively.
Despite the evidence of an increased burden on the sector, 50% of the FOI requests were answered within 15 working days, well inside the legislative time limit of 20 working days.
Those requests not completed within 20 working days in 2012 represented only 7.9% of all requests received; a small increase on the 6.4% reported in 2011.
It is worth noting that 97% of institutions participating in the survey reported having a designated member of staff and/or a team responsible for information compliance, a rise of 3% since last year. A similar increase was also reported in relation to the designated records manager and/or team which in 2012 represented 68% of all institutions who responded. In addition, 88% of institutions reported as having a Records Management policy in place.
It is tempting to view these factors as obvious indicators of the importance attached to information compliance within the HE sector, though we should also bear in mind that we may well be seeing an element of self-selection at work here, with those institutions with recognised information governance related functions perhaps being more likely to respond to the survey.
For further information or advice regarding this work please contact Steve Bailey.