New Brunswick’s information is free!

N.B. becomes latest province to impose access to info law on universities. Let us count the benefits


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.

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New Brunswick’s information is free!

  1. This represents good work by the magazine. Macleans should also consider doing requests that relate to news issues that arise on campus but get mysteriously ignored by The Globe and Mail and other newspapers such as The Vancouver Sun that have symbiotic relationships with universities. Over the past few months I have been conducting an informal study of the health systems in Canada. The most incredible thing I have seen is the March 29th letter in the National Post by Dr. Marcel Dvorak of Vancouver Coastal Health and UBC. Dr. Dvorak revealed that he had seen major problems such as misdiagnoses of spine fractures and undiagnosed cancer of the spine in just a couple of weeks. The silence that followed was truly deafening. Neither The Vancouver Sun nor The Globe and Mail in BC appeared to want to touch this story at all. The BC Ministry of Health, after saying that a detailed e-mail would be needed from me for analysis, went stone silent and did not return my calls.

    If Mr Keller examined the comment of UBC Employee Apr 10 at The Ubyssey website Features “Cheaters sometimes prosper,” he might also ask how this matter has been dealt with at UBC.

  2. Interesting point Clayton.

    The University of Ottawa has a very “close” (some would say incestuous) relationship with the Ottawa Citizen. A few years ago, the Citizen agreed to give the U of O a one million dollar ad-credit. In return, the University of Ottawa decided to name a Terrasse after the publication.

    The Publisher of the newspaper also sits on the Board of the University.

    I wonder if Tony Keller – or someone else from Maclean’s – will ever be offered a seat on a Board of a University in Canada. Well, maybe at the U of T. ;)

  3. Hi I want to quote this article but I think there is an error in the sentence I want to quote. It reads :

    “In the spring of 2007, the only school that refused to make it’s previous year’s CUSC or NSSE survey results was York. ”

    did you mean to say : In the spring of 2007, the only school that refused to make it’s previous year’s CUSC or NSSE survey results PUBLIC was York.

    if you add that word the sentence has relevance to what the article is talking about. without the word it sounds like York refused to synthesise this data at all. I think they did indeed make these surveys. Please make the appropriate corrections so that I may quote you. Also, I am curious if I should credit this quote to Macleans, Macleans – OnCampus, or just to the specific author of this article.

    The advice and corrections are appricated in advance!

  4. Andrew — As you suspected, the missing word in the second to last paragraph was “public”, as in “make public.” Thanks for catching that.

  5. haha I see you were able to achieve the same meaning without putting “public” in the exact part of the sentence I perscribed:)

    I want to make posters to draw attention to the fact my school seems to be fairly unaccountable to it’s customers. I think this line will be great to put on there. I am thinking I will cite it as – Tony Keller for Macleans OnCampus.

    Is that overkill? or maybe underkill? should I give even MORE info about where I got this? Keep in mind this is just to write the quote on a poster, not for an academic essay or anything like that.

  6. Pingback: Public disclosure v. Accountability « Living in interesting times

  7. Pingback: New Brunswick’s information is free! | Boris Gilbert

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