Commercial interests and confidentiality

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 provides that we may be required to release information even when an exemption applies.

In such circumstances, Heriot-Watt University will undertake a "public interest test". We would need to consider whether the public interest in withholding the exempt information outweighs the public interest in releasing it.

The following questions and answers help to provide a flavour as to what FOI practitioners are asked and their responses.

What if I am asked to provide information which could be disadvantageous to the University, an external company or myself?

The Scottish Ministers' Code of Practice on the Discharge of Functions under the Freedom of information (Scotland) Act 2002 states that if we are to undertake a public interest test, we should not take into account:

  • Possible embarrassment of government or other public authority officials
  • The seniority of persons involved in the subject matter
  • The risk of the requester misinterpreting the information
  • Possible loss of confidence in government or other public authority

Would we release teaching materials for a course with fees?

A requester would not necessarily be given copies of teaching materials, hand-outs etc, that our students have to pay through their tuition fees. However as with all information which could potentially be exempt, each request would be looked at on a case by case basis.

If you receive a request for teaching materials which you feel should not be release, please contact HIG via

Colleagues who develop hand-outs may also wish to see guidance that has been developed by External Affairs regarding the "house style" for documents etc.

So could someone ask to see copies of forthcoming Exam questions or answers?

Students and members of public could potentially ask for such document but it would not be released.

Can a student ask to see course-work and/dissertation marks and any comments made by the assessors?

Yes they can. And yes, it would be released. Depending on what exactly has been requested, the case would be dealt with either under FOI or the Data Protection Act 1998 (as a Subject Access Request).

If the marks and comments are release under FOI, then the information will be Data Protection Act compliant. In instances where there are hand-written comments by assessors on the course-work, these will be transcribed into a word document to ensure that individuals cannot be identified. It is important to remember that individuals can also be identified by their hand writing and so releasing hand written could lead to a potential DPA breach.

Given that marks and assessments can be released via FOI, can a student request to see emails between members of staff discussing them and their work?

Yes, though this is likely to be to be made available under a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act 1998.

Does this mean that staff can request to see similar emails between Managers discussing them and their performance?

Note: In view of the last two responses, it is important for all staff to remember that any emails or notes can potentially be viewed and so they need to be written in a professional and objective style.

Would we release details about members of staff performing animal experiments?

No. We would not release this type of information.

Would we release information relating to our computing firewalls, building plans, security procedures and other security measures?

No. The release of this type of information would normally be exempt.

What happens if there is a request for a copy of a dissertation undertaken within a private company which may have a confidential restriction?

Each request will be looked at on a case by case basis as the wording on each contract will differ from company to company. Procurement Services also provide additional guidance regarding Freedom of information and commecial contracts and this can be viewd by clicking on the link below.

What if someone asks for information on a research project we have been working on?

The Act has an exemption clause in s27(2) for research programmes intended for future publication. The parameters for this exemption are very strict: the research must be part of a funded programme and must have a start and end date.

As with other requests, each will be looked at on a case by case basis and will depend on what is being asked for.