The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is to investigate the University of Exeter’s refusal to disclose student accommodation numbers under freedom of information legislation.
Its investigation follows the university’s failure to comply with a deadline it was given to review its handling of an Exeter Observer information request to provide the numbers of Exeter campus-based students housed in Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) during the 2021-22 academic year.
The university had already admitted, in response to a related freedom of information request, that there were nearly 39,000 students based at its Exeter campuses that year – 11,500 more than the 27,300 FTE students it claims on its website.
(FTE student numbers combine full-time and part-time students into a single total used for planning educational provision, not accommodation, although the university does not explain this anywhere on its “facts and figures” page.)
The university can choose what to publish on its website, but its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 are legally binding. It is a criminal offence to alter or conceal information held by public authorities (including the university) with the intention of preventing disclosure following a request for the information under the Act.
Exeter PBSA bedspace availability and occupancy rates make it likely that fewer than 10,000 of the the university’s Exeter-based students stayed in this form of accommodation during the 2021-22 academic year, meaning around another 29,000 students would have been living in the city’s residential housing stock in one form or another.
Academic research on the impact of increasing student numbers in Exeter and government housing stock and tenure distribution figures suggest that these students occupied around three quarters of the city’s stock of private rented properties – 8,250 dwellings which could otherwise have been used for residential housing by local people.
The government does not hold precise figures for tenure distribution at local authority level and there are likely to be small PBSA occupancy rate variations. Meanwhile the city council continues to use council tax records to estimate student residential housing stock occupation despite the Office for National Statistics (ONS) concluding last year that they cannot be relied on for this purpose.
So we asked the university to provide its own figures for the distribution of Exeter campus-based students across both university- and privately-provided PBSA in 2021-22 so we could, in turn, confirm exactly how many were living in the city’s private residential housing stock.
The university’s response was to claim it does not know and cannot find out because it “does not hold structured or consistent data to answer the question without manual process to review all student records”.
It nevertheless also said: “Records are kept as standard address: house number, street name, postcode” but claimed this information could not be used to identify which of its students lived in either its own or privately-provided PBSA despite it also knowing the location and ownership of all 66 such blocks in the city, information it publishes on its website.
When we pointed out that its standardised student address format would enable it to make simple database queries to match the postcodes of each PBSA address against the postcodes of each student address record, yielding the information we had requested, it claimed that it was not obliged to provide the information as it would have to perform this cross-referencing by hand.
University regulations and policies which relate to the electronic online Student Record System that it uses to manage address information for all its Exeter students say otherwise.
Its data protection notice says that it holds and processes permanent and term-time addresses of all its students and its general regulations say all Exeter-based students are required to maintain up to date home and term-time address records via its electronic online Student Record System as a condition of enrolment, a requirement repeated on its academic study administration portal.
It even provides a student records data request service that enables staff to access these records.
When we asked the university to review of its handling of our information request, as per the rights conferred by the Freedom of Information Act, it initially resisted, repeating its previous claim about manual processing.
Then, when we pointed out that its response did not address any of the issues we raised regarding its failure to comply with the provisions of the Act, and asked it to confirm that it had provided its full and final response before we complained to the ICO, it suddenly changed its tune and said it would perform a proper review.
Such reviews should normally be completed within twenty working days. After 22 working days we followed up and were told that a review was underway and would be completed in no more than 40 working days, the maximum allowed by law.
When 43 working days passed without the university completing the review (62 since we submitted the initial request) we wrote to the ICO, which gave the university a ten day response deadline.
The university remained silent, the deadline passed and the ICO has now confirmed it will launch an investigation into the university’s refusal to provide the information.