AcademicFOI.Com aims to investigate UK universities and higher education institutions through the use of Freedom of Information requests. We actively invite suggestions for investigations from university staff, student representatives, careers teachers, alumni, benefactors, research clients, journalists, politicians and special interest groups. The results of requests are carefully analysed, published in detail on our website and promoted extensively to all the above groups.
Universities enjoy an exceptional degree of autonomy compared to other publicly funded, supported or regulated organisations. Over 5,500 current and former university staff are prevented from criticising their institutions through the use of non disclosure agreements. Many other university staff are employed under regulations preventing them making public criticisms. By definition academic staff are obliged to specialise in narrow subject areas which offer limited alternative employment opportunities should they be unfairly treated.
Research work that academics carry out is subject to a system of peer review that is probably the world's most effective system of scrutiny. There is no equivalent system for the university managers for whom those academics work. The league tables comparing costs and efficiencies between different local, police or health authorities do not exist within higher education. Much of the media interest in universities is understandably from the perspective of potential students. The specialist and local publications that cover university affairs often derive considerable revenues from recruitment advertising by universities.
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Collectively UK universities spend around £200 million per year and employ around 2,000 staff on advertising, marketing and public relations. In addition there are the 5 mission groups, the funding councils, the research councils and the sponsoring government departments. In all their communications they are choosing their own words, statistics, faces and images to describe how universities operate and the contribution they make. In our work the topics are not chosen by universities themselves and the pictures painted are precisely as flattering or unflattering as the underlying facts justify.
By making extensive use of e-mail we are able to reach hundreds of thousands of interested parties at minimal cost. Wherever possible we try to automate the processing of data in order to contain the number of work hours involved in running the project. By keeping costs to a minimum we can be completely independent and do not need to rely on advertising revenue, government or other sources of funding. If our project used conventional post and printed information it would cost around £500,000 per year to operate.
Our objective is to produce accurate and definitive reports on each topic. Because of time pressures other media outlets often conduct surveys comprising only of institutions who volunteer to take part. Any report that starts “of the 30 universities out of 125 who responded to our questions” is unlikely to give a full and accurate picture. We devote considerable time and effort to pursuing full responses from every institution including the minority who delay responses, ignore reminders and use unjustified exemptions. We regularly request internal reviews and issue complaints to the ICO and SIC. If necessary we are prepared to appeal to the Information Tribunal or Court of Session. Where institutions display a pattern of failing to meet their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act we will publicise that failure to all their stakeholders and peer group institutions.
A small website run on a modest budget by volunteers in their spare time is unlikely to change the world or radically alter UK higher education. We hope that the presence of the site will encourage a few university managers to think a little more carefully before they treat their staff unfairly or spend public money in a questionable manner. We hope they will say to themselves "It will look bad for us if all this comes out on that website”. If that happens even a few times then we will be proud to be have become "that website”.