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Tag Archives: Freedom of Information
One of the most inspiring aspects of the UCU strike was, once again, the series of ‘Teach Out’ sessions in the Gregson Centre. The 15 events at the Gregson, held between Thursday 20 February and Wednesday 11 March, included readings of radical fiction, an alternative guide to the University’s finances and a workshop on the role of journalists during the civil war in El Salvador. Here are just a few reviews.
RED AND GREY
A good-sized audience (especially as it was the second teach-out session of the day) turned out on Wednesday 4 March to hear Veronika Koller’s history of the Quakers in Lancashire and their connections to Lancaster University.
The colours of Lancaster University, red and grey, are Quaker colours. Several buildings at Lancaster University, including the eventually-to-be-finished 400-seater Margaret Fell Lecture Theatre, are named after Quakers. There’s a Quaker collection in the Library and an MA in Quakerism in the Modern World. Why the close connection?
The Quakers were founded locally. George Fox, though originally from Leicestershire, journeyed to Lancashire and had a vision on Pendle Hill in 1652. The foundation of the Quakers is usually dated from the day, soon after his vision, when he preached to crowds on Firbank Fell, near Sedbergh. Fox was later imprisoned in Lancaster Castle. The Quakers have had a strong presence in North Lancashire ever since, and when Lancaster University was founded, its first Vice-Chancellor, Charles Carter, was a Quaker.
Quaker values are summarised by the acronym STEPS: Simplicity, Truth, Equality, Peace and Sustainability. How does today’s Lancaster University measure up to these values?
Simplicity – a life full of forms, reports, action plans and metrics;
Truth – the University’s motto is ‘truth lies open to all’, but this truth is often concealed;
Equality – pay gaps, precarity and large salaries for senior managers;
Peace – the George Fox Six and more recent bullying cases;
Sustainability – the University has made many unethical investments.
The 2004 case of the George Fox Six, when a group of students disrupted an arms conference being held in the George Fox Building (of all places) and were prosecuted for aggravated trespass, summed up the contradictions between the University’s values and actions. When students stop being students and become knowing subjects, Koller reflected, ‘the University comes down on them like a ton of bricks.’ Today, Lancaster departments continue to collaborate with the defence industry – BAE Systems is a significant local employer and always welcome at our student careers fairs – and the University hasn’t yet committed to divest from its investments in fossil fuels. On the positive side, we have our wind turbine, other renewable energy initiatives and good food sustainability.
In summary, noted Koller, ‘peace does not mean being soft and gentle about anything – but it does mean no violence.’
THE RIGHT TO KNOW
Andrew Williams began his talk on ‘the right to know as a tool of resistance’ on Monday 9 March with quotes from E P Thompson’s ‘Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management and the Universities’ (Penguin, 1970), an account of the 1970 student occupation of Warwick’s administration building, and the events that followed from it. The affair uncovered widespread political surveillance of staff and students, complete with leaks, whistleblowers and listening devices, and explored the importance of information, and how it is controlled: important papers would appear unannounced, inaccurate minutes would circulate, and the realisation grew that ‘knowledge is power’.
Of course such activities would never be tolerated here…
Williams went through the four main pieces of legislation that enable us to request information from public bodies: the Freedom of Information Act 2000, in force since 2005; the Data Protection Act 2018 (and its predecessors from 1984 and 1998); the Environmental Information Regulations 2004; and the various Public Records Acts.
Tony Blair now regrets passing the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but it has dramatically changed the rights of individuals to request information from public bodies. Universities, despite their hybrid ‘public-private’ status, are explicitly designated ‘public bodies’ for the purposes of the FoI Act. It was used to, for example, obtain a copy of our former VC’s email, dated 23 August 2019, on support for off-campus students, at a time when incoming first years were being advised to sign agreements with off-campus residences that weren’t ready for occupation (see subtext 190).
In FoI requests, ‘exemptions are the rule’, usually under Section 40 of the FoI Act, as modified by the DPA Act, which creates numerous exemptions for ‘personal data’. There is a long appeals process for FoI requests: firstly there should be an internal review, then the matter can be taken to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and from there there is a route to a First Tier Tribunal, an Upper Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and lastly, in theory, the Supreme Court.
The lesser-known Environmental Information Regulations are very helpful – indeed, in many situations, they can be more useful than the FoI Act, because when dealing with requests under these regulations, there is a presumption in favour of disclosure. A large number of bodies fall within the scope of the regulations (e.g. United Utilities and MI5) and they can be used to make requests on the state of the elements or the impact of legislation on the environment.
At Lancaster, management holds a ‘knowledge monopoly’ and this leads to a fundamental imbalance of power. Using FoI, DPA or EIR requests is one way for journalists and researchers to challenge this monopoly. For example, Williams had successfully obtained copies of emails showing that the proposed sale of the Sugarhouse had been discussed (January 2019) some months before the proposal was disclosed to students (September 2019). It was possible to find out information about the University’s investment portfolios, showing that Lancaster has interests in British American Tobacco, Glaxo SmithKline and BAE Systems amongst others. Information obtained following the highly-publicised phishing attack on the University in July 2019 showed that, while one person had been arrested, they had later been released with no charges known.
Aspiring investigators should ask for something very specific, and/or ask to search within parameters. The Centre for Investigative Journalism outlines two techniques: ‘grazing’ (targeting specific information lying outside the exemptions) and ‘mining’ (stopping at nothing to get the information). Requests should be acknowledged within 18 hours; a response should normally be received within 20 working days.
The meeting concluded by considering possible requests for information that could be made, including the amount of strike pay deducted after each round of UCU industrial action, disaggregated by faculty, and the turnover of staff at Lancaster’s Beijing Jiaotong University (BJTU) campus. If subtext readers have any other creative suggestions, please send us (or email@example.com) your thoughts.
A lighter note now. Your subtext correspondent was astonished to find a toilet seat in their building split in two, and even more so to find that a colleague in ISS had seen the same thing. Over decades of toilet use, neither had ever seen such a thing before. They wondered just what the scale of the problem might be, so did the only natural thing: issued an FoI request to the University asking how many toilet seats they had got through over the last few years.
In 2016, the University purchased 337 seats. In 2017, 271. In 2018, 163. University residents and visitors do appear to be getting less destructive in their sitting, but 163 is still almost one every two days.
Just who are the granite-bottomed monsters responsible for this overlooked slaughter?
MARKET RESEARCH? WHO NEEDS IT!
In subtext 171 we reported an attempt by a Stretford resident to obtain more information on UA92 via a Freedom of Information request to the University. Despite being given the old ‘commercial in confidence’ brush off, the resident persisted, with follow-up questions seeking more detail relating to the University’s first response. The information revealed in that reply is intriguing. The resident wanted to know what market research had been conducted which convinced the University that UA92 was a viable proposition. It turns out the answer was… not very much.
Lancaster regularly carries out research into the national student market and it was information from this, rather than anything specifically relating to UA92 and Stretford, that informed its decision to go ahead. Despite the claims made by Gary Neville and his pals that local young people would benefit from UA92, it turns out that they will not be targeted any more than those in the UK as a whole. The only differentiation in projected numbers is between ‘domestic’ and ‘international’. Then there is the matter of student retention, already a cause for concern for the Bailrigg campus. According to the publicity, potential UA92 students will be ‘non-traditional’ in that they are less likely to aspire to a university education and will not have the qualifications to enter ‘traditional’ HE. These are precisely the type of students likely to drop out, yet Lancaster’s projections for UA92, according to the FOI response, are based on ‘average non-continuation rates informed by HEFCE’s data’. In other words, the University is assuming that the UA92 drop-out rate will be in line with that of the sector as a whole.
The Stretford resident also wanted to know what information had been gathered on students’ likely disposable income, on car ownership, on public transport usage, on local domicile – all those factors that would justify Trafford Council’s contention that UA92 would be a key driver for local regeneration. The University’s response was that no research had been conducted in any of these areas. So, what justifies Trafford Council’s optimism? Have they conducted their own research, or have they, like Lancaster, been swayed by the charm and celebrity of Gary and the boys? No doubt these and other UA92 questions will be on the minds of voters in the May local elections, where ‘Tory flagship council’ Trafford could be lost to Labour. Should that happen, we’ll be into a whole new ball game,as they say.
(With thanks to the excellent ‘M32 Stretford Masterplan and UA92’ discussion group on Facebook for this information)
In what we think was its first mention of the Gary Neville University since the story broke a year ago, SCAN ran a head to head, ‘for / against’ opinion piece on the subject. subtext readers may be surprised to see that the author of the ‘against’ piece was a member of staff, not least a member of staff who was happy to be named (‘big shoutout’ to Dr Jacob Phelps, FST). More surprising, however, was that the ‘for’ piece came from an anonymous source. Not only was SCAN unable to find someone willing to put their name to a defense of the Gary Neville University, SCAN was unable to find a member of staff to write one! The author refers to themself as ‘a student’. Is UA92 so embarrassing that even students won’t put their name to opinion pieces defending it, or did SCAN get so close to the deadline without someone willing to support it that they hastily ghostwrote any old bobbins?
Whoever wrote the piece claimed that the ‘naysayers have given no clear, coherent argument against UA92…’
Clearly they haven’t been reading subtext for the past year!
LU TEXT LOST AND FOUND
The public pressure against the Class of ‘92 continues to mount, and it continues to make the national press. This time, campaigners are unhappy with the idea of Gary Neville & co taking over Turn Moss, which is green belt land and a habitat of local wildlife. By our count, the Class of ‘92 has had to withdraw and rejig every bit of planning permission they’ve applied for, and their property development efforts are become increasingly unwelcome and irritating to residents, as reported in a number of national media organs:
OVERHEARD AT LANCASTER
In the Management School Hub. A young man obviously very thrilled to have been offered a job at Lancaster University. ‘I am so pleased, fantastic, and they told me I don’t have to wear a suit every day to work but under no circumstances must I ever wear jeans to work’. Obviously not a teaching post then.
THE THIRD RED SCARE
In subtext 167, we reported on the ill-advised letter from Chris Heaton-Harris MP, sent to large numbers of Vice-Chancellors asking for all educational materials relating to Brexit, and the academics involved in its teaching. We were unsure at the time whether our own Vice-Chancellor had received Mr. Heaton-Harris’s pleasant little missive, and if so, what the response had been. Since then, SCAN has reported (http://tinyurl.com/y74h6dbd) that the VC did receive the request from Mr. Heaton-Harris, that it was considered under FOI procedures, and that the ruling followed the precedent set by Arkell v. Pressdram. It was to be expected, but pleasant to learn all the same.
As one of subtext’s drones was returning from a trip to the balmy South [they get holidays now?? -ed], imagine its surprise when it saw, as it was cruising up the A6 and passing the field immediately north of the current Lancaster University campus, the label ‘Lancaster Science Park’ emblazoned over a large grey rectangle to the right of the road on its sat nav screen. There may be no buildings, paths, lights, or any activity whatsoever on the field between Bailrigg Village and campus as yet, but at least someone is preparing for Lancaster’s bold northward expansion!
ANOTHER GLORIOUS VICTORY FOR SUBTEXT
Here in the warehouse we are always pleasantly surprised when we learn how widespread and diverse our readership is. Following our story on the overcrowded bus (subtext 168) it cannot be a coincidence that your correspondent witnessed a Stagecoach driver, in the underpass, stood outside of his bus counting the passengers on so not to exceed the legal numbers of standing passengers. The power of the press!
Following our trip down memory lane (see subtext 168) a number of readers have expressed interest in knowing a little more about the Lancaster Social Education Project during the miners strike (1984/85). subtext would like to hear from readers who involved with the project or indeed the children and grandchildren of people who were active during that time and know of any ‘tales from the campsite’.
Regular readers of one of subtext’s minor competitors, The Guardian, may have come across an article early on Tuesday morning about a letter sent by Tory whip Chris Heaton-Harris to University Vice-Chancellors demanding to know who was teaching students about Brexit, and what the content of their courses was as well as links to online lectures (http://tinyurl.com/yd7e5xqe). It is true that subtext’s coverage of VCs does not always consist of glowing praise, given pay differentials, inaction on pension theft, vanity building projects, and a litany of other charges. But it seems that at least one VC, Worcester top dog David Green, comes off as something of a hero in this tale, by more or less intimating that he intended to tell the MP to chuff off. Whether our VC had a similar response in mind has yet to be established – D floor has not yet responded to subtext’s request for a comment – though according to the Guardian (the local paper, that is, not the national one – keep up!) it was being treated under the University’s Freedom of Information procedures. This, of course, could amount to the same thing.
Meanwhile, back to Heaton-Harris’s shenanigans, around Tuesday lunchtime, by a report that Downing Street had issued a statement saying Heaton-Harris had been acting not as a Government whip, but in a personal capacity as an MP (http://tinyurl.com/ycdgf4vk). That man must have some interesting conversations with himself. In future, he might take the time to have a good chat with himself about who actually teaches at university, as his letter asked for details of ‘professors’ teaching in the area – presumably unaware of the fact that in the UK, professors mostly do what they can to avoid teaching, which is largely carried out by more junior staff. Or perhaps he thinks anyone who is not a professor can’t be taken seriously? Given the leave campaigners’ attitudes towards ‘experts’, we rather doubt the latter could be the case. Heaton-Harris has been the recipient of failed Tory leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom’s full support, so it can only be a matter of time before he is sacked.
A number of other newspapers have jumped on Heaton-Harris-bashing bandwagon since Tuesday, while some of their… less salubrious fellow publications have jumped to his defence, with hand-wringing articles mentioning ‘remainer universities’ and ‘fears students are being brainwashed by remain-supporting lecturers’. You’d almost think universities had some vested interest in EU membership, such as depending on millions pounds of EU project funding, partnerships with other European universities for inbound and outgoing exchange programmes, and being able to recruit thousands of highly qualified staff from other EU countries.