Won’t someone think of the students…?

Image3For privacy campaigners, the issue of big data has been a cause for some time, with a growing trend of governments, businesses and other institutions gathering increasing amounts of data which is then analysed, often without consent from individuals.

It seems that universities are increasingly thinking about using the vast amount of data collected to analyse how facilities are used and identify students who may fail or drop out of their course. By doing this, universities are acting like they don’t require permission to use the data in this way and are seriously undermining student trust.

One university is considering performing a full analysis of emails and other text interactions between staff and students for performance management purposes. The potential for mission creep once the scheme is in place is huge. What happens when a protest takes place, or any other actions that the university may frown upon, does that mean the university would then analyse emails to see who had taken part?

In other examples, the University of Huddersfield is analysing its library data, including details of every time a student swiped into the library, borrowed a book or looked something up online, alongside other student to improve library services and also understand how students learn (full report here). Across the pond, the University of Indiana has introduced a traffic light system which tells students when they were likely to fail compared to the behaviour of previous students. A red signal is shown when a student logs into their course website, alongside suggestions of how to get back on track to green.

There is little doubt that the analysis of this sort of data is clearly useful, but a problem with quantitative data is that it rarely equally addresses the qualitative information that is also available. For instance, when assessing library access in correlation to pass rates, there is no ability to take into account that a vast amount of information is now available via the internet, meaning that students have little reason to visit the library at all. There is also a concern that for students that are failing, or not coping with university, that they pull further away, using alternative methods of communication so they aren’t flagged up as being a cause for concern.

The University and College Union agrees, stating that “By their very nature, such sources of data do not take into account a range of other contextual factors which are of critical importance when making judgements about individual staff members’ work.”

In an age where our personal information is becoming more and more valuable as a commodity, it is clearly sensible that individuals are given more control over the information that they share. Universities, and other businesses, should reassess how much information they request and require informed consent before they use the data available.


  1. Tony Addison
    7th August 2013

    There is an American Government website that lists all reported data loss incidents. I can’t recall the URL. However, the preponderance of Universities in that list and the magnitude of data loss on each incidents shouts that this is a very bad idea. They cannot be trusted to look after such data

  2. Ian
    7th August 2013

    The Guardian’s piece on this was pretty mis-leading truth be told. In terms of the Huddersfield aspect, the actual research (which was not linked to in the original article for some bizarre reason) is available here:


  3. consent required
    7th August 2013

    Universities need to consider the ethics of what they are doing or want to do with student (and staff) data. It is not ethical to use data in the ways outlined here without gaining (informed) consent from the students concerned. We really have to put a stop all of this ‘if data is given for one purpose then data collectors just use for other purposes too’ (without consent of course) kind of attitude. Students have the right to refuse consent for these uses of their data but hey, they need to know what is happening and be given the option to refuse consent.

    Why do researchers have to go get ethics approval for their research if the Universities where they are working or studying don’t bother? This type of covert research is not what students sign up to when they study at University.

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    9th August 2013

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