Ucas: discerning with data

September 3, 2015

One of the things that most engaged me about working at Ucas was understanding the true potential of the data collected every year through the admissions service. Decades of records charting the progress, or otherwise, of young people moving from secondary to higher education. As we have invested in our analytical capability, greater depth and live insight have become available.

The first End of Cycle Report published in 2010 was a sorry booklet of tables that received scant attention. Nevertheless, it went with me everywhere. By 2013, the End of Cycle Report had become an encyclopedia of analysis about who did (and did not) go to university, by which route, to what kinds of institutions, with which types of qualifications and grades, and from what socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.

At about the same time, Ucas started publishing detailed reports using application rates to assess demand for higher education after the main application deadline had passed. Our statistical releases became a bellwether for the impact of the new tuition fees regime.

As our analytical data capabilities and visibility increased, so too did requests from researchers and other organisations for access: we were not alone in recognising the data powerhouse created through full personal records of participation and progression that are live and highly contemporary. It was also evident that the sharing of personal data was becoming a hotly debated issue, as evidenced by the Care.data controversy last year.

Through a survey earlier this year, to which 37,000 people responded in a few days, Ucas applicants made it clear that they did not want us to share their personal data with anyone, however worthy the cause, without their explicit consent. They felt especially strongly about this given that they have few alternative routes for higher education admissions. The high level of trust that Ucas enjoys would be at risk if we did not respect their wishes.

This led us to develop new, comprehensive data services that are not just anonymised, but completely non-disclosive, meaning that no personal information about an identifiable individual can be discovered through the data. We now have a fully automated service that provides analysis against any combination of some 50 variables, facilitating serious analysis against a range of widening participation factors as well as qualifications, course choices, offers, university and so on.

A variation of this service allows us to process a list of named individuals, for example provided by a widening participation initiative, and report in detail on a range of outcomes and characteristics. This approach has sometimes been questioned by researchers and widening participation organisations who want access to data for identifiable applicants, whether they consent or not, for specific and general analysis. There has also been implied criticism from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission for the same reason. While I understand their frustration and commitment, this cannot outweigh the responsibilities that Ucas has through its direct relationship with applicants and the risks to the central admissions service if it were careless of the trust that students vest in Ucas.

The sharing of personal data is fast becoming a high-stakes issue for digital, customer-facing organisations. Ucas is committed to using data to support progression and participation in higher education, and social mobility. But to be cavalier with our trusted status as custodians of vast amounts of personal data would ultimately be to the detriment of research and insight in these areas.

Mary Curnock Cook
Chief executive, Ucas

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Reader's comments (1)

Does Mary Curnock Cook recognise a clear conflict of interest in selling students data to advertisers and promising they will not give it away to researchers in social mobility?