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.

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