UNIVERSITIES

A RIGHT TO KNOW

Universities are legally obliged to open their records, experts say

CATHY GULLI October 2 2006
UNIVERSITIES

A RIGHT TO KNOW

Universities are legally obliged to open their records, experts say

CATHY GULLI October 2 2006

A RIGHT TO KNOW

UNIVERSITIES

Universities are legally obliged to open their records, experts say

CATHY GULLI

This week, 22 universities across Canada each received rare pieces of mail from Maclean’s. Using provincial freedom of information laws, the magazine served them with formal information requests to get basic data the schools have refused to provide for our annual university rankings issue. For the first time since the mid-1990s, some schools are insisting they won’t share with the media or the public such information as the average entering grade of their first-year students. Nor will they make known retention rates, a measure of how many students stay a second year. They have also refused to disclose the number of out-ofprovince and international students in their first year, the number of international graduate students, and the percentage of professors with Ph.Ds.

The controversial boycott, which began with 11 schools in mid-August and has since swelled to include 14 of Ontario’s 17 ranked universities, three Alberta schools, and two each in British Columbia and Manitoba, has many observers baffled. “Universities should not have unchecked discretion to decide what information should go into the public domain,” says Alasdair Roberts, a Canadian specialist on access to information, now a professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in New York state. Advocates for disclosure are puzzled that public institutions such as universities—which are covered by freedom of information acts in most provinces— would deny requests for data they already collect. “If a university has that information available internally, they ought to make it publicly accessible,” continues Roberts. “I can’t see a compelling argument against the disclosure of that kind of information.”

In fact, universities do collect such information annually for their own records and comparisons. And until now, Maclean’s has gathered most of that data directly from the 47 universities included in the rankings issue, published every autumn since 1991This year, dissident schools have announced they won’t participate, citing in letters to Maclean’s

a ranking methodology they describe as “oversimplified and arbitrary.” Essentially, they don’t like what Maclean’s does with the data.

Maclean’s disagrees with that assessment of its rankings. But more to the point, the universities’ concerns do not constitute a legitimate reason to withhold data, say some

provincial information commissioners (though they declined commenting specifically on this case as it could come before them in the future). The end use of information is largely irrelevant to its release, they say. “It shouldn’t matter if it’s the press asking [for the data] or the person next door,” says Gail Perry, research manager for the Manitoba ombudsman’s office. Freedom of information acts do generally contain exceptions that allow a public institution to decline to disclose if, for example, doing so would reveal personal information about someone, or cause the institution economic damage. In this case, though, says Bill Trott,

‘UNIVERSITIES SHOULD NOT HAVE UNCHECKED DISCRETION OVER WHAT INFORMATION GOES PUBLIC

acting director for B.C.’s information commissioner, “I’m not sure that I can foresee a particular exception that would work for [the universities].”

Wayne Wood, spokesperson for the Alberta information commissioner, says, “Freedom of information is just good, solid business for a public body.” According to Bob Spence, communications coordinator for Ontario’s information commissioner, “Anyone receiving substantial government funding should have most of their records, particularly spending records, open to the public.” Interestingly, although Ontario has had a freedom of information act for almost two decades, universities only came under the law in June. “It’s something we’ve pushed for for years,” says Spence.

Ontario universities, which constitute onethird of the ranked schools, may also be put under the microscope by the provincial government, which will dole out $6.2 billion to those who sign on to its “Reaching Higher” accountability initiative, still being rolled out. “That means accountability to students and taxpayers,” says Steve Robinson of the education ministry. “That would imply transparency.”

Most importantly though, says Roberts, schools must disclose information to the public so that students can make clear assessments about the performance of each institution. Universities, says Trott, are encouraged to routinely release data. And if they still refuse? “I think the easiest way to characterize it is short-sighted,” he says. “Modern, public institutions need to continue to be transparent, both in the decisions they make and the outcomes of their activities.” M

ON THE WEB: For more on the university rankings controversy, visit Tony Keller’s new blog at www.macleans.ca/uniblog