Open up Ontario university files

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

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Written by Michael Doucet

As an Ontario citizen, you have a right to know what your public institutions are doing with your money.

Laws passed since the 1980s have shone a light on the workings of provincial government offices, agencies, municipalities and schools. Under a recent initiative of the Dalton McGuinty government, Hydro One and Ontario Power Generation are also covered by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, leading to disclosure of scandalous spending under the previous Queen's Park regime.

For that matter, Ontario community colleges are covered under the act, and must make their records public upon request except for particular exemptions carefully drawn to protect privacy and other essential values.

But Ontario universities are not. They have always been exempted, apparently on the theory that voluntary guidelines put in place at each institution could accomplish the same goals while guarding university autonomy.

The problem is, the voluntary system isn't working.

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, representing 12,000 professors and academic librarians across the province, has been finding it increasingly difficult to get basic information about what universities are doing and how they're doing it.

So we decided to do what comes naturally to university professors — we administered a test.

Last April, OCUFA sent identical requests to all 20 Ontario universities for data on actual faculty hiring for the past five years and faculty hiring plans for the future. This is information we've been seeking to make a case for increased public support for universities, but we've had trouble finding it.

We followed the voluntary freedom of information guidelines that the universities have put in place. These aren't always clear, they're not mandatory and they don't allow for independent appeals — but we figured we'd give it a shot.

The test results were surprisingly bad.

Thirteen of the 20 universities provided no information at all, either declining to provide documents or ignoring our request altogether. Four made a reasonable attempt to provide information, although it didn't completely respond to our request.

And three universities — Trent, Brock and the Ontario Institute of Technology — responded fully and completely, which at least proves that we weren't being unreasonable.

We think the lesson to be learned here is clear: It's time to include Ontario universities under the province's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

There would have to be some commonsense exemptions. OCUFA agrees with university administrations that information concerning student grades or personnel records or unpublished research should be protected.

But we all know this can work. After all, five other Canadian provinces already include universities under their freedom-of-information laws: British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

It just makes sense. Ontario universities make use of more than $2 billion in public funding each year — and almost as much in tuition fees from students — and the public has a right to know how the money is being spent and how decisions are being made.

OCUFA has been pushing for this kind of access for years and it's encouraging to see signs that significant progress is on the horizon. Rosario Marchese, the NDP MPP for Trinity-Spadina, has introduced a private member's bill that would include Ontario universities under FOI legislation for the first time.

The Liberal government has also shown a desire to increase the accountability and transparency of universities, along with other public institutions.

The day our research report was issued, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Mary Anne Chambers said applying freedom of information laws to universities was "something our government wants to do."

The time has come. We'd like to see action on this issue in this fall's session of the Legislature.

  • Michael Doucet is professor of geography at Ryerson University and is president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

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  1. Posted by: Ryan on Mar 15, 2006 @ 9:14pm

    A fundamental problem with FOI in Ontario is the mandatory fees. Users are deterred from making the requests because they will be troubled for more money even for basic requests. Even personal information is subject to the high fees.

    This, in my view, should be unconstitutional.

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