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Students unaware of data use

Less than half of students questioned in a new survey know how their college or university uses their personal data

Posted by Hannah Vickers | July 09, 2017 | Technology

It’s difficult to know whether that’s because they weren’t given the information at all, or simply that they haven’t absorbed it, but either way, data and how it is gathered and used, will be increasingly under the microscope as new Europe-wide data protection laws come into force in May 2018. 

Within Jisc’s Student Digital Experience Tracker survey of 22,000 UK students, learners were asked whether they were told how their personal data was stored and used, and could agree, remain neutral, or disagree with the statement. 

Fewer than half of all online, further education (FE) and higher education (HE) learners agreed with this statement. University students had the most negative response: 38.2% said they weren’t told how their personal data was stored and used. Adult community learning (ACL) and skills students were the only one of the four groups questioned in which more than half (55.9%) agreed.

The survey report, by the UK’s education technology solutions organisation, concluded: “Further exploration is needed to find out whether these findings reflect real differences in how institutions inform and involve their learners, or whether they conceal other factors e.g. differences in learners’ understanding of personal data and its risks. It would also be of interest to learn more about how learners feel about the use of their data – does it bother them, for example, when they do not know what their data is used for?” 

Jisc’s, chief regulatory adviser, Andrew Cormack, has looked closely at the implications of the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on the HE and FE sectors and has this advice: “Under the new regulation, institutions will be required to provide to data subjects, but can’t force them to read it. Whether universities and colleges need to do more to ensure students are informed depends on what they are doing already, but this survey shows a clear gap in current knowledge. To make data use information more digestible, it may be worth introducing shorter, clearer, ‘headline’ notices, with supplementary information available to those who want it – a layered privacy notice, for example.”

In general, Mr Cormack welcomes the GDPR. He says: “As the world moves into an ever more digital direction, our personal data, how it is used and who has access to it has become a global concern for all of us. The GDPR is the first legislative change in recent years that will address these concerns, with a broad aim to invoke a cultural shift in the way businesses and institutions manage personal data.

“It has been hailed by the EU as an essential step to strengthening citizens’ fundamental rights in the digital age and allows individuals to object to certain processing and have their personal data corrected, deleted and its use restricted. 

“The UK government has stated that the GDPR will apply within the UK after Brexit and, in any case, it will continue to cover all processing of Europeans’ personal data. Institutions must be well advanced with their compliance preparations by 25 May 2018, or risk being on the wrong side of the law.”

With less than a year to go until that date, it is positive to note that most of those questioned in the Jisc survey think that their learning provider already protects their data privacy. The group that agreed the most with this statement were the ACL and skills learners (82%), with between 75.4% and 76.7% of those from the HE, FE and online cohorts agreeing.

HE students were less inclined to agree that their university helps to keep them safe online than other groups. Just over 58% concurred with the statement compared with 67.6% of those studying online, 68.2% of FE learners and 70.1% of ACL and skills learners. 

The report summised that: “This may reflect a historically lower level of expectations for responsibility when it comes to digital safety among HE institutions. It will be interesting to see if this changes in a future iteration of the tracker.”  

Finally, the idea that university students have a greater sense of personal responsibility seems to be reflected in a question about online behaviour – 91.4% of them agreed they were expected to behave respectfully in online spaces, while a lower proportion of other students agreed with this statement (85.6% of FE students, 85.9% of online learners and 83.6% of ACL and skills learners).

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