SCOTLAND's universities have been criticised after backing calls to be exempt from the “burden” of freedom of information laws.

A higher education umbrella group has said universities - many of which have been embarrassed by numerous FOI disclosures - would “welcome” being removed from the right-to-know legislation.

However, the stance was blasted as “ludicrous” by the National Union of Students (NUS) in Scotland.

Two FOI laws require public authorities to hand over information to the public: a UK-wide statute that applies to bodies controlled by Westminster; and a separate Act relating to devolved organisations in Scotland.

In a move widely interpreted as an attempt to restrict the law, the Tory Government set up a panel last year to “review” the UK-wide legislation

It emerged that the Russell Group, which represents the 24 leading universities throughout the UK, used the review to call for an exemption.

In a letter to the chairman of the panel, the Russell Group claimed FOI created a “competitive imbalance in the UK higher education market and increasingly burdensome reporting requirements for our universities”.

However, it can now be revealed that Universities Scotland – which represents 19 higher education bodies – also supports its members being taken off the FOI list.

In a consultation on teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, the umbrella group wrote: “The proposal to remove English HEIs [Higher Education Institutions] from the scope of Freedom of Information legislation will be noted with interest by Scottish HEIs. Separate FoI legislation applies in Scotland, enforced by a separate regulator...and therefore the proposed exemption for HEIs would not automatically extend to Scotland.”

The body added: “Scotland’s HEIs are committed to transparency, which is guaranteed through the Scottish Code of Good HE Governance and many other regulatory requirements. However, they would welcome the removal of FoI obligations, which impose a very high administrative burden on institutions and, consequently, the diversion of resources away from core educational and research activity.

“Were such an exemption to apply in England but not in Scotland, this would set Scottish HEIs at a competitive disadvantage.”

However, HEIs risk being seen as trying to wriggle out of legislation that has provided unflattering headlines for University principals.

Recent FOI disclosures revealed that Glasgow Caledonian’s Pamela Gillies incurred the highest spend on hotel bills of any UK principal last year. Her costs came to £19,864 and averaged £382 a night.

The same data showed how Strathclyde University spent £41,891 on flights for principal Sir Jim McDonald.

FOI exposed how the same University shelled out over £339,000 to transform a £1.2m Glasgow townhouse bought for the Principal’s use.

The right-to-know laws also confirmed the extent to which Edinburgh University has used testing on animals.

An FOI-based investigation in 2012 revealed how the country’s elite universities had recruited only a tiny number of students from the poorest backgrounds.

Vonnie Sandlan, the president of NUS Scotland, said: “When universities are, rightly, in receipt of over a billion pounds of public funding a year, and even more in public loans, the idea they should be exempt from FOI is as ludicrous as it is concerning.

“Be it the eye watering expenses claimed by senior managers, examples of spurious spending, links to disreputable companies, or any of the other varied and serious examples uncovered through FOI requests, there’s simply no basis for universities to be exempt and every reason to ensure they remain transparent and open to public scrutiny.”

Mary Senior, the Scotland Official at the University and College Union, said: “Freedom of Information legislation is important in holding universities that spend millions of pounds of public money to account. UCU’s recent report into the full extent of universities’ spending on pay and perks for their bosses may make uncomfortable reading for some, but that does not give them the right to escape scrutiny.

“It is no surprise that principals are joining the calls from England to exempt universities from freedom of information legislation. But we are clear this does not make sense. We need greater transparency and openness in how universities are run, not a wriggling out of these responsibilities.

A Universities Scotland spokesperson said: "As recipients of public funding, Scotland's universities are fully committed to being transparent and accountable as to how they use public investment to deliver maximum value for Scotland's people and contribute to the country's sustainable economic growth. It is important to review regularly how the highest standards of transparency can be delivered efficiently, given that FOI requests cost the sector more than £10m per year to administrate.”