Disclosure date: 1 October 2013
You asked for the following information for each year from 2008/09 to 2013/14.
- Module code
- Module title
- The number of students registered as recorded on your system
- Responsible School and/or Division name for the module
- Academic year offered (Year with or without semester specified).
Please see the attached spreadsheet. It has not been possible to include 2013/14 as enrolments are not yet complete. The number of students registered has been provided rounded to the nearest 10. The precise figures are exempt from disclosure as disclosure would be likely to prejudice SOAS’ commercial interests. In addition, where enrolment numbers are particularly low, the figures are exempt as they could allow individual students to be identified.
Details of exemptions applied
Section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act exempts information from disclosure if it would or would be likely to prejudice commercial interests.
The first thing to consider is whether the information concerned is commercial in nature. Higher Education is increasingly a competitive market and detailed intelligence on an institution’s offerings is valuable to competitors. Being able to see which modules are successful and which are not would allow a competitor an advantage as they could see which courses attracted students and which did not.
It is then necessary to consider the nature of the prejudice. The commercial interest concerned is SOAS’s commercial interest. Competitors could potentially use this information, based on SOAS’ investment over many years, to gain an unfair advantage over SOAS in the development and offering of attractive courses.
Once the prejudice has been established, its likelihood should be considered. The Information Commissioner’s guidance suggests that “would” should be interpreted as being “more likely than not”. It is probably not more likely than not that prejudice would be caused by disclosure, but there is a “real and significant risk” that prejudice would be caused to use the terminology of the Information Tribunal in John Connor Press Associates Ltd v The Information Commissioner. SOAS’s argument then is that disclosure would be likely to prejudice its commercial interests.
The information concerned therefore falls within the exemption at section 43(2) given that it is commercial in nature and its disclosure would be likely to prejudice SOAS’s commercial interests. It is now necessary to consider the public interest in disclosure and balance this against the public interest in withholding the information.
Arguments in favour of disclosure
- There is a general public interest in the transparency and accountability of public bodies.
Arguments in favour of withholding the information
- SOAS is a unique institution that brings many benefits to society, in particular through improving understanding between different cultures. The potential impact of reducing SOAS’s competitiveness is that it would be less effective at exploring cultural issues and helping society to understand them. This is not in the public interest.
- Universities operate in an increasingly competitive environment, competing with private providers as well as other publicly funded institutions. As the Justice Select Committee recently stated “there is a strong public interest in competition between public and private sector bodies being conducted on a level playing field to ensure the best outcome for the taxpayer”.
- SOAS is providing details of the modules, together with rounded figures for enrolments, satisfying the public interest in transparency.
On balance then, SOAS concludes that the public interest is in favour of maintaining the exemption at section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, and the precise number of enrolments is to be withheld.
Where enrolment figures are particularly low (ie less than 5), these are being withheld under the exemption set out at section 40(2) and section 40(3)(i) of the Freedom of Information Act. This exemption protects personal information where its disclosure would contravene any of the data protection principles.
Firstly, it is SOAS’s view that this information is personal information because if this information was put together with other knowledge held by some members of the public (notably members of the SOAS community or friends or relatives of the people affected), individuals could be identified and personal information relating to them thereby disclosed. Given the low numbers involved, it is likely that individuals could be identified in this way.
Information disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act is effectively disclosed to all, so this possibility has to be considered. SOAS believes that disclosure would breach the first data protection principle as students who enrol with SOAS would not expect SOAS to disclose details about them. It would therefore be unfair to disclose further details that could allow them to be identified.