Freedom of Information request: advertising for clearing

Rowland Manthorpe made this Freedom of Information request to Newcastle University as part of a batch sent to 140 authorities

This request has been closed to new correspondence from the public body. Contact us if you think it ought be re-opened.

Response to this request is long overdue. By law, under all circumstances, Newcastle University should have responded by now (details). You can complain by requesting an internal review.

Dear Newcastle University,

Under the Freedom of Information Act, can you please tell me how much money you spent on advertising for clearing in 2019.

Can you please provide subtotals for the following categories (feel free to break them down further if that's appropriate):
1. Facebook
2. Instagram
3. Google - that is, search advertising
4. YouTube
5. Snapchat
6. Twitter
7. Other social networks (please specify)
8. Amazon
9. Online - that is, on websites excluding social networks, or those websites those listed above (this includes advertising using Google's ad network)
10. Television
11. National newspapers
12. Local newspapers
13. Magazines
14. Posters and billboards
15. Radio
16. Public transport billboards

Can you also provide an example of an ad in each of the above formats.

For the online forms of advertising, can you also tell me how many clicks each advertisement received. Can you also provide any other data you have which indicates the engagement with each ad.

For Google advertising, can you list which keywords you advertised against. Can you please indicate the cost-per-click in each case.

For Facebook, can you please supply
- A list of the interests and/or demographics you targeted
- If you used custom audiences, where you derived the data to make that custom audience from

Can you please provide this information in an Excel format.

Thanks for your help!

Yours faithfully,

Rowland Manthorpe

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Good morning Rowland,

Please accept this email as confirmation of receipt of your FOI request.

We will forward your FOI request to the relevant Newcastle University department for processing.


Information Security & Governance Team
IT Service
Newcastle University

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Good afternoon Rowland,

Thank you for your request below, which we have handled under the Freedom of Information Act.

Whilst I can confirm that the requested information is held by the institution, I consider that disclosure of this information would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of Newcastle University. This information as would facilitate the establishment of spend, which could then be used when planning competitor advertising and investment levels.

This exemption is, however, qualified, meaning that the public interest in withholding the information must outweigh that in disclosure. Whilst there is an accepted public interest in access to information held by a public authority, Newcastle University is operating in a commercial environment with competitors not subject to FOIA, and there is a strong public interest in avoiding distortion of competition in that market. It is my opinion, therefore, that the public interest is best served by withholding the requested information.

If you are unhappy with the way we have handled your request you can ask for an internal review. Details of how to do this can be found at:

If you are not happy with the outcome of the internal review, you then have the right to apply directly to the Information Commissioner's Office for a decision. Details of how to do this can be found at:


Information Security & Governance Team
IT Service
Newcastle University

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Dear Newcastle University,

I am writing to request an internal review of your handling of my FOI request 'Freedom of Information request: advertising for clearing'.

There is a strong public interest in showing how universities spend public money and student fees, as shown by the ongoing debate on university funding. More recently, there has also been increased public interest in university admissions, with a review into this subject by the Office for Students being backed by the education secretary. This information could help that review see how clearing operates and factor into its recommendations on the timing of clearing.

There is also a public interest in ensuring fair commercial competition in a mixed economy, which favours transparency on questions of procurement.

I am therefore very disappointed in your decision.

I also believe the decision reflects neither the exact circumstances of the advertising market nor the ICOs guidance on the subject.

In your response, you argue that releasing information about marketing for clearing would prejudice your commercial interests.

This is incorrect, given the facts of this case, for the following reasons.

1. The University makes money by providing courses to students. It does not seem possible that this information would discourage students attending university -- as ads are known to cost money, the University would not advertise at all if it believed that was the case.

2. The University has a commercial relationship with the advertising platforms (both online and offline) on which it places ads. It would harm the University’s commercial interests if releasing information about marketing caused the price to go up. This is not likely to happen, because:
- As I am asking for the total sums spent on different forms of marketing, I am not asking for price information, which could conceivably be used to drive up the University’s price per ad
- Even if the University did release the price per ad, this should -- according to the ICO’s own guidelines -- causes - prices to fall, by “promoting competition in procurement via transparency”
- In the case of online advertising, prices are set algorithmically, based on the total demand at that time. - Revealing the total spend would therefore not impact the price
- In the case of online advertising, you are competing against every conceivable advertiser at that moment, not just universities. Releasing details of spend is therefore extremely unlikely to raise prices
- Clearing for 2019 has already passed, so this is not relevant to existing negotiations. What’s more, as clearing will not happen again for another year, when the price will have changed, this information is unlikely to be relevant

There is an instance in which prejudice might occur. The University is in competition with other universities for students. It could harm the University if other universities changed their advertising expenditure as a result of the disclosure, thereby outcompeting the University for students.

However, this does not outweigh the public interest in releasing the information, for the following reasons:

1. The ICO’s guidance states that there must be a “causal link” between the disclosure and the prejudice claimed, you must be able to show that this harms you commercially by reducing the number of students on your courses. As students decide on numerous factors, including location, the reputation of the university and the number of places available at the time, the causal link in this case will be weak. There is also no evidence to show that the university “market” operates in this way.

2. The ICO’s guidance specifies that “the severity of the prejudice that may happen also affects the weighting.” As the causal link is extremely unclear, the severity is also likely to be limited.

This being the case, the strong public interest in revealing this information means that the exemption to the FOI Act should not be engaged.

I look forward to your response.



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