February 19, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 78  

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NEWS

Universities to fall under new Info Act?

By Marshall Bellamy
Gazette Staff

The Ontario Liberal government will be introducing an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act, possibly to include universities as one of the bodies that fall under its purview. The result could mean universities would have to surrender documents upon request.

“As the act stands now, the FOI Act only applies to ministries,” said Linda Travasio, spokesperson for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, adding there is a bill to amend the Act, though it is too early to tell if universities would be included.

“The government is committed to openness and transparency — I believe the Council of Ontario Universities has the same principles,” she said, citing the COU has adopted guidelines that reflect the goals of the Act, although the guidelines are not backed by legislation.

“Ontario universities are autonomous institutions,” stated Arnice Cadieux, executive director of public affairs with the COU. “We are committed to freedom of information and the protection of privacy.”

According to Cadieux, the COU has developed a set of guidelines for their member universities to follow that reflect the spirit of the FOI Act, but she was unsure whether all of the universities under the COU had ratified the guidelines or drawn up a similar document. “If it isn’t being adhered to we’ll look into it,” she added.

Bruce Frank, secretary of the Senate and the Board of Governors at McMaster University, echoed Cadieux’s sentiments of the value of the independent guidelines for Ontario universities, citing McMaster’s guidelines, which used COU’s as a template.

“We’d make the case to stay out of the political process,” he said. “There’s always been a group calling for this.”

“Generally, this is in line with the provincial Liberal government to make our publicly funded institutions more accountable,” said University Students’ Council VP-education Dave Ford, referencing a bill in the provincial legislature to audit privately-run, publicly-funded institutions.

“I think it’s a good thing,” he said, adding 50 per cent of university funding in Ontario comes from the government, meaning there should be some level of transparency and accountability.

Ford said he could, however, understand why universities would want to remain autonomous. “They don’t want governments trying to micro-manage universities.”

“There wouldn’t be any constitutional impediment to bring universities under the FOI Act,” said Thomas Urbaniak, a lecturer in political science at Western, indicating his uncertainty of the issue. “This is a very grey area in jurisprudence.

“I can’t off-hand see how this could be or should be a problem for universities,” he noted.

David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo, said he understood the reasons behind legislation putting universities under the FOI Act, but added anything passed should consider the best interests of the universities.

 

 

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