One of best ways we can tell whether British society is getting fairer is the flow of disadvantaged into top universities. I hope it shocks you to consider that UK Universities are blocking access to this information. Alan Milburn of the government’s Social Mobility Commission has belatedly joined the army of voices having to ask Universities to maybe think about considering letting someone know who gets into our Universities. This rather underpowered pressure group includes ministers of state (David Willetts), government departments (DfE), the data protection regulator (The Information Commissioner), parliamentary committees, academics (Vikki Boliver), the entire industry involved in widening participation and the regulator of socially fair access to university OFFA.
The data embargo is not just a frustration for researchers, it prevents evidence based policy in a central area of the public’s mandate; to make Britain fairer. With the introduction of student fees, legislation forced Universities to spend a higher proportion of fees than previously on measures supporting fair access. The vast majority of £650 million is spent on financial support for disadvantaged students. To make sure this happened the Office for Fair Access checked they spent what they say they did. Its seems important to consider that OFFA’s work in no way has anything to do with whether the money achieves what its suppose to. Indeed OFFA seems recently to be stung into action by revelation that financial support which makes up 99% of fair access spend has no effect on dropout rate; exactly what it was supposed to prevent; resulting in OFFA commissioning more research to confirm.
Additional to bursaries a higher amount than previously is also to be spent reaching out to disadvantaged school pupils to get more of them them into HE. According to OFFA universities spend approx £125 million per year on these projects. But OFFAs remit and strategy does not have contingency for figuring out whether any of it works, whilst widening participation partnerships are expected to prove what works to keep their funding but Universities block of data allowing them to do this.
Universities secrecy is not a recent or short term problem. A couple of years ago I was asked to help a regional widening participation partnership to improve evidence of its effectiveness. This was important for the provider as increasingly their funding was being linked to how well they could prove their programs worked. UCAS, the university admission service, were not even responding to requests for data at the time so I contacted every other major provider of widening participation in the UK. All were encountering worsening access to data and were increasingly concerned about their ability to evidence their effectiveness. It occurred to me that if individual regional providers were unable to reason with UCAS perhaps every single one of them combined would have more leverage. So I organised a group petition and got buy in from every major regional provider in the UK. This resulted in urgent responses from UCAS, an improvement from silence, and offers to meet. However UCAS continued to say exactly the same ‘no’ but in a different arrangement of words, so there was no point discussing the status quo.
Let me try to illustrate the absurdity of the situation. Our group of regional widening participation providers worked for a large number of Universities. And we wanted to know whether people attending our courses had gone to University. UCAS said they were only willing to tell us the University application record of any individual on our list of those attending our courses who was on roll at the University that ran the course. This was absurdly useless because firstly, we already knew who on our courses had gone on to our Universities because we already had these records. Secondly, this was absurdly useless because widening participation is intended to promote participation in any higher education setting and so to measure its success its necessary to know if pupils went on to any University not just one.
UCAS were effectively saying they were willing to support assessment of the effectiveness of our courses in recruiting to our University but not the effectiveness our courses at increasing participation to other Universities; the meaning of widening participation.
The explanation provided by UCAS is data protection. Without going into detail about the data protection act data holders have a responsibility to withhold where the individual might reasonably not want the requester to have the requested information, or if the requester is likely to pass data onto a third party or use it for profit.
In our case, the question was; would anybody not want those who helped them get into university know whether they had gone to university? Clearly, attendance at university is not something people wish to keep secret. Nor are Outreach providers untrustworthy types, most sit within University code of practice and data security. No risk whatsoever of the data being lost, passed on to anyone else or sold. It also seems likely almost everyone would be happy for us to have their data to help improve fair access.
Throughout this period and since UCAS has proudly proclaimed their commitment to widening participation. Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, said: “UCAS is committed to using its data proactively to support widening participation and fair access.”
We petitioners were unable to progress. The blatant contradiction between UCAS’s stated intentions and their actions and the absurdly officious hiding behind the data protection act showed they were uncooperative with the fair access community, for reasons they were not willing or able to say out loud.
Their position was so obviously contradictory it was clear they had no intention of releasing individualised data capable of identifying the effectiveness of fair access programs. The question remained why were UCAS being so evasive?
UCAS sell the data through their commercial wing UCAS Media producing about one third of an income they use to subsidise services to applicants and Universities.
But it’s missing the point to blame UCAS entirely, clearly they are a bureaucracy that have not been supervised by the government sufficiently given the pivotal role they play at the gateway of a major determinant of life chances. Given too much freedom they seem to have become warped into valuing only their own internal bottom line. However, they are just an admin unit for the Universities and do as instructed by their paymasters.
The real problem seems to be that Universities have been given the choice about whether to provide information that can be used to hold them accountable.