A number of British universities, including the whole of the Russell Group, have demanded that they should be exempt from the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act. FoI requests are one of the limited tools allowed by the capitalist state for student activists and journalists to garner some information on how university management acts; discovering agreements with big business, or pay differentials between employees.
Since the FoI Act’s inception in 2000 there have been cries from university management to exempt them on the grounds that they are ‘not public bodies’ and that FoI requests harm the competitiveness of the universities to operate in the market. The howls from management have only increased in recent years, mirroring the ever increasing marketisation of education and the success of student led campaigns around fair pay which have been aided with FoI requests.
One reason given by university management is the cost of dealing with FoI requests. The costs are said to be too great, apparently placing a burden on the universities which means the education of the students’ suffer as a consequence. The fact of the matter is that by the Russell Groups and Joint Information Systems Committee’s own figures, the cost of FoI requests is merely £28,520 per institution.1 This is sixteen times less than they spend on marketing their university’s brand2 and a minor fraction of their Vice-Chancellor’s annual pay!3
It may sound a ridiculous sum to complain about, but from a capitalist view point their logic is sound. Any costs which don’t lead to an increased market share or ultimately reduce the profit margin needs to be minimised – especially ones which lead to bad PR and embarrassment. Universities should be places of universal learning where the expansion of scientific and academic knowledge is unbounded, yet under a market based system we see universities are capitalist enterprises which are subject to market forces. For them, marketisation of brand is far more important than freedom of information.
In a statement speaking about FoI requests, the National Union of Students (NUS) said:
“Freedom of Information requests are an important channel for students and the taxpayer to hold institutions, which receive Government funds, either directly or indirectly, to account. We understand FoI requests can be an administrative burden… We believe the Government should look into ways to ensure the FoI Act works in the interests of the public and the key stakeholders in higher education.”
This statement from the NUS correctly identifies the importance of FoI requests but then completely misrepresents the situation. The ‘administrative burden’ i.e. costs, is not the reason for appealing FoI requests. The appeal to the government to ‘ensure the FoI Act works in the interests of the public’ is utopian when central government look for any reason not to comply to FoI requests and are actively seeking to either ‘reform’ FoI to make them more toothless or do away with them altogether.
FoI requests have played a part in the empowerment of student led campaigns in recent years. They have allowed activists to find out information from Universities which has been used in propaganda to great effect against management.
According to Gabriel Fleming, Vice-President of the King’s College Student Union in Cambridge University, they are ‘absolutely crucial if we want to campaign to change things that are kept away – sometimes on purpose – from students and activists.’
In a brief interview with an MSF reporter, Fleming spoke of how the successful Living Wage campaign in Cambridge University could not have taken place without the information revealed by FOI on how staff were paid.
Through this mechanism, activists discovered that King’s College indirectly employed 127 staff on less than the living wage. This information provided the basis for the organisation of direct campaigning action which ended with the employees finally being paid the living wage.
‘We got a detailed breakdown of staffing and wages from every college. This allowed us to know what we were up against and what the aim of our campaign was, and then to inform people of the terrible employment situation in Cambridge colleges and get students and the public engaged with the campaign’.
‘Institutions like colleges and universities are keen to keep a lot of their business as private as possible’, says Fleming, speaking from his experience negotiating with college administration.
‘If you’re campaigning for any sort of change in those institutions – wages, ethical stuff, student costs – the FOI tool is the only way get the information you need to begin fighting back.’
Information is an important tool in the fight for equality. The proposed death of the FoI in the university sector must be fought. It shows the continuing march of marketisation in education which will continue unabated until the market and capitalism are thrown in the dust bin of history. Join the MSF to fight for that end!
by Scott Robert, Sheffield Marxist Society; additional reporting by Mordecai Levi, Cambridge Marxist Society