What should we be told about educational policy? I ask only because I’ve just been looking at the papers of the Scottish Funding Council’s Access and Inclusion Committee. At its meeting on 13 September, the Committee’s agenda listed four items for discussion, with papers attached. But only one paper is available for the public to read.
Three papers were withheld. One was a report on students with additional and complex needs; one was an overview of the 2012-13 outcome agreements, which link institutional funding to national priorities; and one had the glorious title of Strategic priorities for access funding looking ahead.
The Freedom of Information Act works on the presumption that the public has a general right to know how it is governed, and that exceptions would be rare. So why is SFC refusing to publish these particular reports?
In all three cases, SFC deemed that publication would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs. This is a rather general claim, and not one that it is easy to test – at least, not without quite a deal of trouble. But it does make me wonder how many other SFC documents are deemed too sensitive for the public to read.
This is only one set of committee papers, so I’ll resist the temptation to go off on one. Yet it is not altogether clear to me why the conduct of public affairs would be harmed by the publication of these three reports.
My guess, for what it is worth, is that by publishing these documents, SFC is worried that college and university principals would try to manoeuvre their own institution into the best position to benefit when the policies are implemented. But won’t that happen anyway – in fact, isn’t that the point of having outcome agreements and identifying strategic funding priorities?
And what about the one item among the papers of the Access and Inclusion Committee that we can read? Why, it is a published report by the National Union of Students. I’m not objecting: it’s an important piece of work looking at fairer access to higher education. But it strikes me as odd that SFC has bothered to make public a report that – well, it’s already been published.