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New polling shows students need clarity on how universities use their data

  • 5 December 2019
  • By Rachel Hewitt and Michael Natzler

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published new research about students’ views on data security, Students or data subjects? What students think about university data security. 

The survey of over 1,000 full-time undergraduate students, undertaken for HEPI and Tribal, who have sponsored the report, by the polling company YouthSight, shows:

  • Only 32% of students agree they are aware of how their institution handles their personal data, compared to 45% who disagree and 22% who neither agree nor disagree.
  • Just 31% of students feel their institution has clearly explained how their personal data are used and stored, compared to 46% who disagree and 24% who neither agree nor disagree.
  • When students were asked whether they are concerned about rumours of universities facing data security issues, 69% of students stated they are concerned. Around one-fifth of students (19%) are unconcerned and 12% are unsure.
  • 65% of students say a higher education institution having a poor security reputation would have made them less likely to apply, compared to around a third (31%) who say it would have made no difference and 4% who said it would have made them more likely to apply.
  • Only 45% of students feel confident that their institution will keep their personal data secure and private, while 22% are not confident. A third (33%) are unsure.
  • 93% of students agree they should have the right to view any personal information their higher education institution stores about them, 5% neither agree nor disagree and only 2% disagree.
  • When it comes to sharing health or wellbeing information with a student’s parents or guardians, almost half (48%) of respondents say it would be fine for institutions to do so. A further 19% said they neither agree nor disagree and a third (33%) disagree.
  • Comparatively, only a third (35%) of students were supportive of parents or guardians being contacted about academic performance issues at university, compared to almost half of students (48%) who are opposed and 17% do not take a stance on this issue.

Rachel Hewitt, HEPI’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:

Students are required to provide large amounts of data to their universities, including personal and sensitive information. It is critical that universities are open with students about how this information will be used. 

Under a third of students feel their university has clearly explained how their data will be used and shared and under half feel confident that their data will be kept secure and private. Universities should take action to ensure students can have confidence in the security of their data.’

Michael Natzler, HEPI’s Policy Officer, said: 

Students are generally willing for their data to be used anonymously to improve the experience of other students, for example on learning and mental wellbeing. Around half are even happy for information about their health or mental wellbeing to be shared with parents or guardians. 

However, when it comes to identifiable information about them as individuals, students are clear they want this data to be kept confidential between them and their institutions. It is important that universities keep students’ data private where possible and are clear with students when information must be shared more widely.’

Notes for Editors

  1. Wave 7 of the HEPI/YouthSight Monitor was answered by 1,078 full-time undergraduate students and undertaken between 16 August and 20 August 2019. Weights have been used to ensure the sample is representative by age, gender and university type. The margin of error is +/- 3.09%, based on a 95% confidence level. Respondents received a £1 Bonus Bond gift voucher for answering these questions and others on a different topic.
  2. The full results, including for questions not covered in this press release, are available in a spreadsheet from HEPI.
  3. This report has been kindly sponsored by Tribal but editorial control was retained by HEPI. Tribal provides the expertise, software and services required to underpin student success. Tribal’s customers are private, public and alternative education institutions – ranging from just 50 to 200,000 students across multiple sites. Tribal are the trusted SIS, CRM and data partner for over 100 higher education institutions globally and their analytics and surveys are being used in 1000’s more.
  4. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate through evidence. It is the United Kingdom’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded in part by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.

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