By Margarita Poliakov
Ontario universities will be included in the Freedom of Information Act this June for the first time since 1988.
The act, which gives citizens the right to access information about themselves held in public institutions, as well as information in the public realm, came into effect in 1988 but did not include universities nor hospitals.
This meant that students and the general public could not request access to documents the public had but were not making available. “(The Freedom of Information Act) is very important to public institutions,” said Robert Cribb, an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star and a journalism professor at Ryerson University.
“Public institutions receive millions of dollars and should be accountable. The deal that was struck (in 1988) was not (made) in the interest of the public.” By excluding universities from this Act, the government restricted the amount of information known to the public about issues such as budgeting.
While public money goes into universities, the public relies on universities to tell them what is being done with the money. The addition of universities in this Act will open doors to journalists, particularly the student press. “It would give student newspapers more leverage,” said Sean Patrick Sullivan, president of the Canadian University Press.
“Some likely stories will be about pay since expense accounts will be readily available.”
The Information and Privacy Commission, an organization independent from the government, had been pushing to get universities included in the Act. Nobody can say why universities weren’t included in the act, or the reason why they are finally being included in June. It isn’t just student newspapers that can be affected by this act.
In British Columbia, where universities are included in the Act, Sarah Schmidt of Canwest News Services uncovered a scandal at the University of British Columbia. Administrators there were reorganizing class sizes and manipulating class enrollment in order to get a higher rank in Maclean’s yearly university ranking.
Schmidt was able to unveil these facts by requesting inter-department memos under the Freedom of Information Act.