- Kirsty Lawrie
Freedom of Information and Industrial Action – In Conversation with Jonny Dennis
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
I wait in the window of Café Salut, the Old Medical School looming over me from across the street. Sometimes under this old university building you can find picket lines with protest signs clustered under the ornate stone carvings of its archway entrance. I’m waiting here, opposite to the archway, to speak to Jonny Dennis, choosing this location off-campus in order to stay in solidarity with the current industrial action taking place at the University of Edinburgh. The café is quiet, and I overhear a conversation suggesting that it has lost close to all its student customers due to ‘industrial action’. Action which has become necessary not only at our university, but across the nation, involving over 70,000 university staff.
Often, the term ‘industrial action’ is put in synonymy with ‘strike’. Although striking is certainly an aspect of industrial action that we have seen utilised in the UK over the last few years, the scope of action in fact reaches much further. Alternative types of industrial action can range from occupations, work-to-rule, slowdowns, or to picketing with teach-outs. Among these well-established forms of industrial action is the emerging use of Freedom of Information Requests (or FOI) as Jonny, a PhD researcher and tutor at Edinburgh University, tells me once we’ve settled in with a cup of coffee.
In the UK, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA), you have the right to request recorded information held by any public authority. Including government departments, hospitals, and any publicly owned or publicly funded company. Often FOIs are used by journalists themselves to find revealing and attention-grabbing evidence for articles and investigations. Most crucially here however, this law equally applies to schools and universities. Hence, in the on-going expansion of strike action across the country, many academics and activists have tapped into this source.
Jonny tells me he has been employing his right to information since 2018, when pension strikes were rife in his then place of study, Heriot-Watt University. “I saw a lot of news articles stating that their ‘information was obtained through Freedom of Information Request’ and it got me interested” he says, “that these organisations actually had a legal obligation to provide information that could make them ‘look bad’”.
Jonny’s first FOI was in relation to Heriot-Watt’s LGBT policies. The university had been advertising it’s ‘Go Global’ scheme where “you can do a semester or year abroad in their campuses in Dubai or Malaysia […] and I was excluded from that program because they had built campuses in places that criminalised homosexuality”. Jonny wanted to get a general idea of whether the university had “considered our existence”, and if they had any plans in place concerning possible trouble with the law for its staff and students. The answer Jonny got was quite plain: they didn’t have any planning, and they certainly hadn’t considered LGBTQ+ policy until conducting what they call a ‘value assessment’, which took place after building these overseas campuses. In Heriot-Watt’s response they state that “at the time when our Dubai Campus was founded in 2005, we did not have the Value statement referred to above and so our holistic and all-inclusive values would not have been taken into consideration”.
More worrying was their response to what the course of action would be if a student or staff member was convicted of homosexual activities; “This situation has not happened and so the information is exempt from release,” as they answered. Jonny explains to me, “basically, they said that because no one had ever gotten into legal trouble they couldn’t say what they would do”. This shameful revelation, from a university that builds such a supportive and inclusive persona, not only showed a lack of consideration of student and staff’s safety and rights but was “unfair and shocking” to Jonny.
At the time he had no intent on continuing with more requests and was actually “disappointed by their lack of insight”. Nevertheless, some small amount of intrigue must have remained in Jonny as today he has now made 12 different FOI requests since his first one in 2018. The most recent and revealing of which was a request made to the University of Edinburgh investigating the so-called ‘Mathieson’s Mansion' in 2022.
Around this time last year there was a rumour going around that the university was paying for Principal Peter Mathieson’s house and Jonny wanted to know how “far that extended.” After examining a university document of a list of buildings that the university owned, he discovered what seemed to be a random residential property. Suspecting that it may be the Principal’s residence, he submitted an FOI, asking questions concerning its costs and energy usage. The response revealed that Edinburgh University not only paid a massive £4,243 council tax bill over one academic year, but also paid for expenses such as a £300 Aga cooker service and a £665 landscape gardening bill. Overall, the property cost the university a massive £17,900 in one year, exposing a contrast between how our staff were being treated at the time and how our principal was being pampered. “I just wanted to call it out,” said Jonny.
Seeking to take action, he shared the information with some local and student papers. This caught the attention of national papers and the story spread with The Scotsman, The Telegraph, and The Scottish Daily Express all adding to the ensuing outrage. This success motivated Jonny and reassured him that he was addressing the right things. During a cost-of-living crisis, increasing frustration from staff concerning casualisation and pay issues, and with energy prices increasing, Jonny lay bare how much Mathieson was benefitting by getting bills paid by the university (on top of being the highest paid university principal in Scotland) while others suffered.
Finally, therefore, I asked Jonny whether these FOIs – with all that we had discussed – could assist academics in the continuing industrial action?
“The union has a self-admitted problem with not taking credit [..] good things happen and usually people are too busy to publicise it or tell members what we’ve achieved […] It’s not just about striking”, Jonny asserts. In this sense, FOIs may allow the complexity of industrial action to come to light and allow us all to have more informed discussion surrounding public authority and union disputes.
Crucially on top of this, by exposing the awful realities for staff, unions may be able to put the university under some pressure. At the moment much of the responsibility to fix university issues falls on its already over-worked and under-paid staff. As Jonny tells me, “Ironically there is a lot of unpaid labour within the unions”. Striking staff put in immeasurable amounts of effort trying to resolve the multitude of maladies we face as a university today.
Jonny thinks “it’s all well and good having the info but they’re not going to act on it until you make them”. He explains, “[FOIs] may be the only, or the best course of action we have. Big organizations, they don’t bow to emails asking them nicely”. We must tell people who have a responsibility, tell them “there has been serious harm inflicted here”, tell them that “we are aware there’s this issue, what are you going to do to solve it?”. Public authorities such as the university notice “when things get traction online”, as Jonny tells me, and FOIs may hopefully force them to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
When we make visible the shocking truth of working and pay conditions, we make visible the cause for striking. In this way, FOI’s may lift the voices of those downtrodden, they may increase the visibility of their determination and labour to a public level, and they may increase pressure upon management to a level that makes action necessary.
Therefore, the information they reveal and the consequential pressure they put on the university, make FOI’s a crucial resource for those involved in the current industrial action. Hopefully by tapping into alternative types of action such as the FOI request, striking staff may finally be understood, listened to, and ultimately work with university management to truly solve the issues currently eating away at our education – here at UofE but equally across the country.