A Russell group university has been blocked from accessing confidential pupil information from the government after it claimed it could no longer get accurate data from UCAS.
The University of Exeter said it needed information from the national pupil database (NPD) as part of its widening participation programme, but was refused access by the Department for Education.
The department said it took “the privacy and protection of children extremely seriously” and “accordingly there are strict criteria in place to determine access to extracts from the NPD”.
Since 2012, the university has used UCAS data to identify schools and colleges ranked in the bottom 40 per cent for average score per A-level entry or the average UCAS tariff per student. It said those students did better at university than their “similarly qualified” peers from higher attaining schools.
However, the university said “a change in the data available from UCAS” meant it was not able to “accurately” assess these “aspirational schools” anymore.
It then applied to receive the NPD, a highly sensitive document that contains data that includes children’s full names, address, date of birth, ethnicity, detailed descriptions of any special educational needs, if they receive free school meals and academic progress.
The university wanted to use this information to “target” pupils.
The application raised concerns with data protection experts who said it would be “unfair” on young people to receive
But UCAS said the data it provided on schools already allowed the targeting of such children and included “achieved qualifications . . . A-level grades and subjects, and summary measures of A-level and tariff points”.
A spokesperson added: “Statistics on the background and characteristics of applicants can also be requested.”
Tim Turner, a data protection expert, said without consent from pupils it would be “unfair” on the children to receive unsolicited information and for their details to be used in such a way, “no matter how well-intentioned or beneficial they might think it is”.
Jen Persson from DefendDigitalMe, a campaign group calling for more transparency with the NPD, said: “That any covert research or direct marketing involving children could be happening without parental knowledge is deeply unsettling and would be highly unethical.”
It is not the first time that an organisation has attempted to use this information to market itself to young people.
Last year, Schools Week reported how the Ministry of Defence attempted to gain access to the database to “target its messaging” around careers in the military.
In a statement, Exeter said that to make sure disadvantaged pupils had “every opportunity” to progress to higher education it needed information about their achievement “to get a rounded picture of their potential.
“We wished to use the data to target students directly to promote opportunities at the University of Exeter.
“Recent changes to the technical specification of UCAS data supply mean we were no longer able to identify aspirational schools in the same way.”
Instead the university said teachers at outreach schools would target pupils on its behalf.