Boo! Poo, ban Onan in the loo

Bizarre FoI requests waste university resources, say fatigued staff. David Matthews writes



Cease and desist: a fake notice resulted in an FoI query for St Andrews


The Freedom of Information Act strove to advance democracy by committing public institutions to exacting standards of transparency and openness. You can also use it to ask universities about duck poo, hauntings and bans on masturbation in the library toilets.

Those burning issues are among the bizarre FoI requests that universities had to process last year, with institutions warning that issuing responses is a drain on resources.

Highlights from last year include the member of the public concerned by a "Masturbation Notice" that appeared at the University of St Andrews stating that self-gratification was banned in the library toilets.

He dispatched an FoI request to St Andrews to check the sign's veracity, asking for "all internal correspondence regarding the decision to create the notices".

Niall Scott, director of corporate communications at St Andrews, wrote back to say that "a strong clue that the notice is fake is the line 'Please go home and masturbate if you are bored.' As a matter of policy, the university would never encourage students to go home during term-time."

The St Andrews request came from prolific FoI Act user Steve Elibank, who also asked the University of Oxford for the "branding and/or style guidelines" for the Oxford Reading Tree series of children's books featuring the Biff and Chip characters, published by Oxford University Press.

The request was refused because the guidelines could be used to create "pirate copies" that would "reduce sales of legitimate copies of books in the Biff and Chip series".

The universities of York and Brighton were both asked how many complaints they had received about haunted buildings, ghosts or "other paranormal phenomena" on their premises, what action they took and how much it cost.

York, famous for its on-campus wildfowl, was also asked to state how much money was "dedicated to the clean-up of duck excrement on a year-by-year basis for 2008, 2009, 2010", plus its forecasts for spending on clean-up operations in 2011.

A student journalist requested that Oxford provide an estimate of how much its administration spent per year on biscuits for meetings.

One press officer at a Russell Group university said: "Of course it is a perfectly valid argument that this diversion of teaching and research resources is worth it for the transparency the Act attempts to provide. But it's worth mentioning how much time it takes up."

She added that the university was "churning out" Excel spreadsheets every day to answer FoI requests and that this had to be done by "people whose job is to do something else (eg, admit students)".

"Emails and documents provided daily under FoI have to be carefully searched for by the relevant departments and academics," she said.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Register to continue  

You've enjoyed reading five THE articles this month. Register now to get five more, or subscribe for unrestricted access.

Most Commented

  • Man measuring bar graphs with tape measure

An Elsevier analysis explores the viability of a ‘smarter and cheaper’ model

  • David Willetts

The former universities minister discusses the reforms that reshaped higher education and his first steps into academia

  • Man holding a box filled with work-related items

Refusal by John Allen to obey instruction from manager at Queen Mary University of London led to his sacking, tribunal rules

  • Unlocked open door

Publisher’s open access policy unleashes public display of disagreement

  • A black and white crowd scene with a few people highlighted

What are the key issues local union branches are dealing with, and how do they manage relationships with institutions in what many activists argue is an increasingly confrontational environment?