2019 or 1984? Why SU’s need access to student data.

I’ve long been an advocate of taking a data driven approach to understanding the demographics of a student body.

Student data is being used by institutions to shape services, and SU access to data is driving more purposeful student engagement.

But not everyone has access. Take this tweet from an SU manager from Wonkhe’s Secret Life of Students event:

It’s all well and good talking about data, but many SU’s aren’t actually allowed proper access to it by their institutions so can’t prove their ability to improve retention and success. Could the OfS force uni’s to share more data with their SU’s?


That got me thinking about the different levels of access I’ve had to university data in my SU career – everything from getting both personal and sensitive data, to getting all current student data but little wider demographic information, and then in my last two month consultancy stint at an SU we had no access at all to 3000 of 18000 students – because the data feed was deemed ‘opt in’. This is not a unique problem.

This limited access to data, undoubtedly made more complicated by differing interpretations of GDPR, is now limiting the potential of students’ unions in two key aspects that matter – retention and success. This isn’t about tracking who buys what flavour Ginsters Pasty (the correct answer is the Steak Slice) or how many pints are sold to certain demographics – but is about SUs shared core purposes as a charity to: advance education through representation, opportunities and support.

Access and participation

I looked across most of the sector’s current approved Access and Participation plans. Almost 70% of providers mentioned partnership working with the Students’ Union (although some neglected the “s’”). That signals a clear commitment to the value that a Students’ Union brings in recruitment, retention and student success. Of the 30.5% of institutions that didn’t mention an SU, there were 5 that acknowledged they did not have one, and the overwhelming majority were at colleges that offered HE courses or specialist institutions. There was only one glaring omission from a university to work in partnership with their SU – and that was from the Open University.

While the extent to which SUs are mentioned differs from plan to plan, there is an emerging trend in the value that is being placed on students becoming part of communities, having access to a high level of representation through co-creation and the value that student support brings. However, if an SU lacks the data around the key areas that the institution has identified when working in partnership with the SU, it’s hard to improve the impact. The BME attainment gap, integration of mature students, first in family – if SUs don’t know, it’s hard to help. A face to face advice service is probably able to collect demographic data as part of a booking system, but try and get that for the thousands of students who join societies that you may never see face to face!

SUs need this data to monitor trends; identify areas where there is a lack of engagement, and ultimately prove our impact across student retention, academic performance, participation rates and graduate outcomes. If we believe that student activities and opportunities are a benefit to students, we need to know about access and participation gaps here too. Without the data, SUs will struggle prove impact and fulfill their partnership with their institution.

It’s the law

Students’ unions are membership charities – how many other membership charities don’t exactly know who their members are?

SUs know their full members are current students of their institutions, and obviously they know the characteristics of the student body generally, but detail beyond the general is often missing. As well as having my ‘staff hat’ on I also get to put my ‘trustee hat’ on for an SU, and one of the items that came up at our last board meeting was not having the provision of all student data.

A particular challenge without this level of data is administering elections. Most universities will share data for the purpose of voting on the grounds that:

the governing body should satisfy themselves that the elections are fairly and properly conducted’ (Education Act 1994)

But ensuring all students can vote may not be enough for an election to be conducted “fairly and properly”. What about identifying trends in voting, not just about club and society membership but linking it back to access and participation?. If there is a lower turnout amongst international students does that effectively mean the elections have been properly conducted to the best of their ability?

Another aspect of the act that makes a case for provision of key student demographic data:

a student should have the right—

(i)not to be a member of the union, or

(ii)in the case of a representative body which is not an association, to signify that he does not wish to be represented by it,

and students who exercise that right should not be unfairly disadvantaged, with regard to the provision of services or otherwise, by reason of their having done so;’

So even if a student has not exercised their right to leave, are they currently being disadvantaged from having access to services? Perhaps so if through not having key data SUs are stopped from directly communicating with particular demographics where engagement is low. Without the university providing this, it puts SUs at a disadvantage to excel in their aims as unions.

Something should be done

So here’s a question. OfS has good guidance that frames SUs as representatives of students, feeding into the access and participation agenda. But SUs are providers of that agenda too and may be harboring their own A&P gaps. Should OfS force universities to share more data with their SU’s? Or better still, should they at least advise on the benefits and the way to do it legally?

Taking the importance placed on this through OFS mandated Access and Participation plans, and an Education Act that needs to be interpreted for a data driven world, perhaps OFS should look to ensure there is a full data sharing agreement in place from university to SU, with key recommendations on what data should be shared, the process this should take, the reasoning behind it and how the SU will ensure the data is fully protected.

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