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UCAS profits from student personal data

UCAS Students.jpg


The UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has been criticised for selling access to student and parent data to advertisers, in a report by The Guardian.


Last year, through its commercial arm, UCAS Media, the university applications body generated revenue exceeding £12 million from direct marketing and targeted advertising to a market it claims is worth £15 billion a year. 


Approximately 700,000 students sign up with UCAS each year


Almost every student wishing to enrol with a British University is obliged to apply through the company which is also a charity.  UCAS Media promotes its database as offering advertisers the opportunity to reach more than one million-plus email addresses which can be "filtered by age, region, subject, domicile, gender or university".  It also claims to include 100,000 16/17-year-olds, 90,000 mature applicants and 100,000 overseas applicants. 


Companies who have marketed through UCAS Media include Vodafone, O2, Microsoft and the private university accommodation provider, Pure Student Living.  Recently, Red Bull used the database to promote new drink flavours, sending sample cans to 17,500 students that were expected to be trend setters who could create a marketing buzz around a product through social media. 


Data protection concerns


Privacy lobby group Big Brother Watch told The Guardian that UCAS is using student data in an ‘underhand’ manner, despite acting within the law.  Deputy Director, Emma Carr said that UCAS’ sale of information “goes far beyond what students would expect them to do with their data.  Students should be explicitly asked for their permission before UCAS can sell their information on and UCAS should be open and transparent about who it is selling the data on to."


The Information Commissioner’s office responded in an email to SCMagazineUK.com, “It's crucial people are aware of how their personal information is being used by an organisation. Where a company wants to use that information for marketing, it should be clear from the outset, and ensure it has the individual's consent, which must be freely given, specific and informed."


Critics have pointed out that, while university applicants can opt out of receiving direct marketing, because the various types of mailing are not separated out, students who opt out of commercial marketing will also miss out on messages about courses and careers.


Your data, you control it


There is no specific ‘age of consent’ in the UK for sharing one's own data, an issue which is highlighted by a new UCAS service ‘Progress’, designed for 13-16 year olds to choose post-16 education options.  Data is collected for Progress registrants although, unlike the database for university applicants, only those students who give express permission by opting in to marketing messages will hear from "carefully selected third parties".  


UCAS says that it only uses Progress applicants’ data to place advertisements from education and training providers on its website and, although it is collecting permissions to do so, it is adamant that it does not email the children directly.


A spokeswoman for UCAS said: "UCAS and UCAS Media comply strictly with all applicable laws and regulations, in the way in which we handle personal data. UCAS Media has strict guidelines for the different groups that we may cover, based on the age sensitivities of our audiences. For example, UCAS Media does not accept political, alcohol or tobacco related products for marketing." 

Jo Wise, Finance Director, The Security Company
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