Are Universities Open to Business?

Another post of fragments…

A recent THES feature article – Are universities as open as they should be? – casts an eye over FOI requests in a university context, as well as transparency relating to university decition-making, pay (and bonuses) and the make-up of the student body:

With universities increasingly relying on funding from private sources, some believe that the burden placed on universities by the [Freedom of Information] Act is unfair and unsustainable. “As funding of the sector changes, and a greater proportion of university income comes from non-governmental sources, it is even more arguable whether universities are truly public authorities and whether the Act should therefore apply to them,” the University of Essex told MPs on the Commons Justice Committee when they audited the Act last year.

Universities can be unforthcoming for different reasons. In response to recent FoI requests submitted by Times Higher Education, a number of universities have refused to divulge information because they say it could harm their commercial interests – an exemption permitted by the Act. One THE request prompted this round-robin message from Staffordshire University to other FoI officers: “I have been asked by my student office if we can refuse this using this [commercial interests] exemption, I can’t see how we could – any thoughts?”

With the government pushing the idea of greater competition between institutions, we can expect this exemption to be wheeled out more frequently in the future, Gibbons predicts. “That’s something that may well happen because the government’s got this agenda to make us more commercial.”

Should universities – as free-thinking and occasionally contrarian bodies – pay more heed to the current vogue for transparency? Transparency is fine, says Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, “as long as it is not confused with truth or even reliable knowledge. Knowledge of what is going on in any institution is not revealed by raw data.

“The demand for transparent data to operate as a kind of substitute for knowledge or truth is part of a culture of ‘immediacy’,” he thinks, which is “anathema to knowledge, and to education, both of which require time, delay, and the mediations of thinking.”

I’ve done a little digging before around university funding (e.g. and First Dabblings with the Gateway to Research API Using OpenRefine), though as mentioned in Public Sector Transparency – Do We Need Open Receipts Data as Well as Open Spending Data?, we could gain even more “transparency” if public bodies also started to publishing receipts data.

University business can also leak out in to other domains… for example, looking through OpenCorporates last night, I noticed that some directors had been added to the FutureLearn listing. My first thought was to see whether any pairing (or larger grouping) of FutureLearn directors were also co-directors of any other companies. Here’s what I found:

OU companies

(We can also look up to see what other companies currently have directors with the same names as directors of the companies listed above (here). Note that there may be some ambiguity here – exact string matches on names doesn’t mean that the names refer to the same person…)

Bookhire Limited was new to me, so I tried a quick search, in turn stumbling on a not recently updated OU FOI page – Subsidiary Companies. Do other universities tend to publish such a page?

Hmmm… maybe that would be a useful thing to collect on

PS as well as looking up university registered businesses via co-directorships, we might also try to track down companies based on DNS registrations. For example, here are some DNS nameservers for and here are some domains registered on an OU nameserver.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...