The Open University? Application of FOIA to University Course Materials

The question of whether and to what extent FOIA can be used as a device to open up public access to educational resources is obviously an important one for our society. It is a question which was very recently considered in the case of University of Lancashire v IC (EA/2009/0034). In that case, the Tribunal was called upon to decide whether a university (UCLAN) had acted unlawfully in refusing a request made under FOIA for disclosure of course materials relating to a BSc degree course in homeopathy. The request had been refused initially on the basis that disclosure of the course materials would damage UCLAN’s commercial interests (application of s. 43 FOIA). Subsequently, when the matter came before the Commissioner, UCLAN also argued that it was entitled to refuse disclosure because of the risks disclosure would pose to the effective conduct of its affairs (application of s. 36 FOIA). The Commissioner held that UCLAN had erred in refusing to disclose the course materials, save that he accepted that certain elements of the course materials, and particularly empirical case studies, could be withheld under s. 41 FOIA (the confidential information exemption). UCLAN appealed the Commissioner’s decision to the Tribunal.

The Tribunal dismissed UCLAN’s appeal. In summary, it held that:

·       with respect to the application of s. 43 FOIA (the commercial interests exemption):

o      despite being a charitable institution, UCLAN did have ‘commercial interests’ and those commercial interests were engaged in respect of teaching materials produced for its degree courses (§31);

o      however, it could not be said that, at the time of the request (July 2006), there was any real and significant risk that disclosure of the homeopathy course materials would prejudice UCLAN’s commercial interestsand accordingly s. 43 was not engaged (§§32-39);

o      in any event, had s. 43 been engaged, the public interest balance under s. 2 FOIA would have weighed firmly in favour of disclosure (§§40-50).

·       with respect to the application of s. 36 FOIA (the public affairs exemption), the exemption was not engaged because the opinion of the qualified person relied on for the purposes of this section was neither reasonable in substance nor reasonably arrived at (§§52-62).

The following aspects of the Tribunal’s decision are particularly worthy of note:

·       in line with the earlier Student Loans case, the Tribunal took a broad approach to the concept of ‘commercial interests’ for the purposes of s. 43. It readily accepted that universities could have commercial interests in the courses which they ran;

·       UCLAN argued before the tribunal that the course materials were exempt from disclosure not least having regard to the facts that: (a) they contained a significant amount of third party copyrighted information and (b) disclosure of that copyrighted information under FOIA would disincline third parties from contributing to course materials in the future. The tribunal rejected these arguments. It did so on the basis that: (1) disclosure of information under FOIA would not in any way have diluted any copyright enjoyed by the third parties and (2) there was in any event no sufficient evidence before the tribunal to substantiate UCLAN’s case that disclosure of the copyrighted material would have had an alienating effect on third party contributors.

·        the Tribunal highlighted the degree of rigour which must be applied when the relevant qualified person is seeking to formulate an opinion which engages s. 36. It also highlighted that the public authority must itself provide evidence that the person who reached the relevant opinion was a ‘qualified person’ for the purposes of s. 36 (§53);

·       on the question of the public interest test, the Tribunal found that there were strong public interests in disclosure. Those interests included both: (1) a general public interest in members of the public being able to test the educational value of publicly funded degree courses and (2) a specific public interest in accessing information relating to a homeopathy degree course which was by its very nature inherently controversial.

The parties were represented by 11KBW’s Tim Pitt-Payne (counsel for UCLAN) and Anya Proops (counsel for the Commissioner).