Finally. New Brunswick has announced that it is becoming the latest province to subject its universities to provincial freedom of information law. Each of the provinces and the federal government have long had such legislation, covering the affairs of publicly-funded bodies such as government ministries and departments, and various taxpayer-supported institutions such as universities and colleges. New Brunswick is one of the few provinces to exempt public universities and colleges from access to information’s purview, though it was until recently in good company: Ontario only extended its freedom of information legislation to higher education in 2006.
Access to information legislation isn’t perfect. It doesn’t magically make government transparent. It doesn’t even guarantee that information that by law must be made public, will be made public, or at least not with any urgency. As we on the Maclean’s higher education beat have found—led by Sandy Farran, who has been in charge of all of our many freedom of information requests—a law mandating that requested information be released in a timely manner can still yield a delay of the better part of a year. As every good lawyer learns, there’s the law and then there’s procedure, and a public agency that wants to keep information under wraps has a quiver filled with ways to delay and delay some more. But at the end of the day (or at the end of weeks and months), an institution that has received an access request usually has no choice but to disclose the sought-after data or documents to journalists or members of the public, subject to a few reasonable exemptions such as not breaching an individual’s privacy.
So has anything good ever come out of subjecting universities to access to information law? Yes, indeed. The system works. Not perfectly, not quickly, but slowly and surely and generally well enough. Since 2006, Maclean’s has been publishing student satisfaction and engagement surveys from nearly every university in Canada. All of these surveys were conducted by the universities themselves, and until Maclean’s began asking to publish them, these were for university administrators’ eyes only. At most universities, students were surveyed, but only university administrators—not students themselves, or potential students, or alumni, or taxpayers— got to see the full results of those surveys. (Though many institutions did sprinkle a selection of their most flattering findings in their marketing materials. It was about as close to full disclosure as the average profile photo on Lavalife).
And then in 2006, Maclean’s started asking for the results of two major national surveys: the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium (CUSC). Both NSSE and CUSC ask standardized questions across a variety of campuses (CUSC in Canada, NSSE in both the U.S. and Canada), giving readers a sense of what undergrads think of their respective universities, and, in the case of NSSE, how such important benchmarks as the level of student-faculty interaction compare from campus to campus. A few universities, to their credit, had long made this information public. Others made it public as soon as we asked for it. But for the majority of Canadian universities, access to information law was the prod that set this information free. Back in 2006, some universities frankly admitted to us that they’d rather keep these surveys under wraps, because some results revealed real weaknesses at their institutions. But despite the desire to keep these surveys as their little secret, they would concede what we both knew: that if we asked for them and invoked the law, they’d eventually have to turn them over. And so, conceding the legally inevitable, most universities made their results public without a struggle.
A few universities tried to fight or ignore our requests; in the spring, 2006 University Student Issue, we published NSSE and CUSC results for two dozen schools —but could say only “Refused to make this information public” when it came to NSSE results for Windsor, York and New Brunswick and CUSC results for Concordia, Dalhousie, Lakehead, Manitoba, U de Montreal, Mount Saint Vincent, Saint Mary’s, Saskatchewan, U of T Scarborough, Windsor and York.
“As of June 16,” we wrote back in 2006, “results for half of the universities to which we filed FIPPA [an acronym often used to described a freedom of information request; FIPPA stands for “freedom of information and protection of privacy”] requests had been provided to Maclean’s, either by the universities or by a FIPPA coordinator. The remaining requests are still making their way through the legal process. When CUSC and NSSE results for the missing schools are made public, Maclean’s will be publishing them and posting them on our website.”
Five months later, we republished those student survey results as part of the annual University Rankings issue. Thanks to FIPPA, the results for only two schools were still missing in November, 2006: Concordia and New Brunswick. A few months later we had received Concordia’s results, thanks to provincial freedom of information law: the university turned them over the day before we were to have a hearing before the province’s information commissioner.
In the spring of 2007, the only school that refused to make public it’s previous year’s CUSC or NSSE survey results was York. But by last fall it too had conceded and released its data. This past February, the University of Manitoba was the only university to withhold its student survey results. But the province of Manitoba has a freedom of information law and it applies to universities, so we expect to be receiving —and publishing—those results soon.
Eureka, it works.