CAMBRIDGE CENSORED: We name and shame the colleges fighting freedom of information

Girton and Medwards have denied almost FIFTY Freedom of Information requests in the past three years between them when other colleges have denied none

colleges colleges being shady FOI Freedom of Information investigation

According to the Freedom of Information Act (2000), anyone can ask anyone about anything and expect an answer within 20 working days. Or can they? 

In the name of journalism, we sent the following FOI request to all 31 Cambridge colleges: How many Freedom of Information requests have been denied by the college over the last, say, 3 years?  We waited patiently until our  supposedly compulsory 20 day response period was up, and received some pretty interesting and surprising results.

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Girton stands out dramatically for denying a whopping 26 requests,  making it the college with by far the most denials over the three year period.

Medwards came second, with 20 denials. They made clear, though, that a “violation of personal information” was the reason for half of these.

Tit Hall came in third, declining to respond to 15 requests; apparently “commercial interest exemption” was the reason for declining some of these, though they didn’t specify how many.

Doubt may be cast over these colleges’ reasons when they are compared with St John’s, which, despite receiving an enormous 157 requests since 2013 – one of the highest figures for any college – actually only declined four in the event (these four were deemed “invalid”).

Corpus, Darwin, Fitz, Homerton, Newnham, Pembroke, Queens’, Selwyn and Sidney all refused a small number of requests. Selwyn declined to reply to five requests as they were “anonymous”.

Christ’s, Churchill, Clare, Clare Hall, Downing, Emma, Caius, Hughes Hall, Peterhouse, Robinson, Trinity and Wolfson all said that they hadn’t denied any requests over the last three years, with Downing being the only college to actually publish details of all FOIs dealt with on their website, along with a guideline on how to approach the college for information.

Thank you Downing, you lovely journalist-friendly college you

In terms of requests sent by this newspaper, Selwyn and Clare have been the most efficient colleges to respond, regularly taking around just four days to respond. Nick Downer, FOI officer for Sewlyn, told us that he has “no problem with the principle of the act”, as the college aims to do its business as “transparently and efficiently as possible”.

But, regarding this request, The Tab is yet to hear anything back from Jesus, King’s, Lucy Cavendish, Magdalene, Catz and St Edmunds.

Additionally, although Trinity says it has not denied a single request over the period, one student journalist qualified this: “While Trinity likely receives more FOI requests than other colleges, they seem to have been disproportionately resistant, and charge for some information where other colleges do not. However, they are at least responsive – a great deal better than those certain few colleges which attempt to ignore requests entirely.”

Furthermore, when the central university office itself was sent the same FOI, The Tab received the following response:

The University has estimated that the time required to locate, retrieve and extract the information you have requested would considerably surpass 18 hours of staff time charged at £25 per hour, and therefore that your request exceeds the appropriate amount.

This is reflective of, as The Independent reported, the news that Cambridge colleges had written to the government asking to be completely “exempted” from Freedom of Information requests; they cited an “excessive financial burden” as a reason.

Waiting for my FOIs back…

According to Dr Matthew Russell,  head of the office of intercollegiate services for the colleges, Cambridge colleges have received “over 1,000 requests” over the last two years, with Cambridge spending three times the amount of money on responding to FOIs than any other university within the Russell Group.

He also said that the colleges receive requests which are “plainly commercially driven,” and seek information “likely to be sold on for commercial gain”, attractively suggesting that much of the backlash against the sending of FOIs is directed at larger publications and companies, and not at student papers like ourselves.

But, in a report published by the government’s FOI commission yesterday, it was declared that “use of the act by the media gives rise to some very important investigations that are clearly in the public interest”, and Cambridge and the other Russell Group universities were not granted their exemption.

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock, who established the commission last July to examine whether the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FoI) was too expensive and intrusive, said: “After 10 years we took the decision to review the Freedom of Information Act and we have found it is working well.”

So, for now, the act looks set to live on.