Publish salary information, ombudsperson told Adelaide

In a turnaround that could increase the scrutiny of other Australian universities, a government watchdog overturned a South Australian institution’s decision to exempt itself from Freedom of Information (FOI) obligations for reasons of commercial confidentiality.

South Australia’s mediator overturned the University of Adelaide’s decision to reject a FOI request regarding details of the salary and bonuses paid to the 50 highest-paid employees at the institution.

The application from Michael Zyphur, associate professor of human resources management at the University of Melbourne, requested data that the university had provided to the Australian Taxation Office in 2019 and 2020. Adelaide took just over a fortnight to complete. decline the application, citing staff expectations. and the institution that compensation information “is kept confidential”.

“The university operates in a highly competitive market which allows staff and the university to privately negotiate salaries,” he then explained. “Although the university is an agency for the purposes of FOI law, it cannot be treated in the same way as a ministry. [It] is a significant commercial enterprise financed primarily from sources other than public funds.

Deputy Ombudsman Steven Strelan ordered the university to release the full information, saying it was “not happy” with the business value of the data.

“Staff members… receive public funding for the agency’s teaching and research functions. While acknowledging that the agency receives additional funds from sources of a commercial nature … I would hesitate to describe [it] on the whole as an institution that engages in for-profit activities.

Times Higher Education asked Adelaide how she can claim to be funded primarily from non-public sources, given that her latest annual report shows that about 55% of her income for 2020 came from federal government grants for education, research and basic operations.

A spokeswoman declined to respond, saying the university would “take the appropriate time” to review the ombudsman’s determination.

Dr Zyphur requested similar information from all Group of Eight universities. While several have “gladly complied”, notably the Australian National University, he encountered opposition from Adelaide and three others.

“Universities behave as if they stand between the private and the public,” he said. “They will classify themselves for accounting purposes as charities. But when [you] asking for information… they say, “no, we all have these business interests” and try to block any investigation into how they are using public funds. “

Dr Zyphur pointed out the contrast to his native United States. “In the University of California system, arguably the best public education system in the world, every employee has their publicly available salary. You can find it online. “

Peter Tregear, director of Little Hall Residential College at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Academics for Public Universities lobby group, said universities tend to see and govern themselves “first and foremost” as businesses. “[They] use confidential business arguments all the time to exclude staff and students from decision making. “

Dr Zyphur said he was seeking the information as a concerned citizen, although it also pertained to his research and union activities. He told the ombudsman’s office that his goal was not to identify “or to criticize in any way” specific individuals.

“The public debate [that information of this type] can and should generate is, in my opinion, precisely why we have freedom of information legislation. The public has the right to know. “

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