Under the Freedom of information Act 2000 (FOIA) at s.1(1) any person making a request for information held by a public authority is entitled to have it provided to him. Most colleges and universities are public authorities under the FOIA and student coursework held by a university or college would be ‘information held’.
The information held by a public authority must be disclosed when requested unless an exemption to disclosure applies.
It is likely that where such coursework is requested, the institution needs to consider whether the FOIA s.40 exemption for personal data applies.
Student requesting own work
A student has the right under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) to see his her own personal information unless an exemption applies. This would include his submitted coursework. Thus if a student requests to see his coursework then the request is in effect a subject access request under the Data Protection Act 1998. Where the information held is an exam script, there is no legal requirement under DPA to release this but the student would be entitled to see the examiner's comments. Although students are not entitled to see their exam scripts, an institution may have its own policy on permitting release in some instances. Institutions should have a records management procedure in place to deal with the retention/disposal of student coursework.
Third party (including another student) request for student coursework
This is an FOI request for information and requires to be treated in accordance with the FOIA. The college needs to release within 20 days unless an exemption applies. The most likely exemption to be considered is the s.40 exemption for personal data. If it is a third party request (e.g. from another student, or from someone external to the college) then the college would need to release the information unless doing so would breach one of the eight data protection principles (s.40(3)) or breach s.10 of the DPA (likely to cause harm or distress to the student as data subject). Again, if the information is exempt from disclosure to the data subject (as is the case with exam scripts) then it would also be exempt from release to a third party. This exemption is not absolute, which means that the institution would also need to balance the public interest in release against the data subject’s rights.
The JISC Legal website has more information about data protection and freedom of information.