back to article ICO probes universities accused of using private data to target donation campaigns

Twenty-four British universities are being probed by the Information Commissioner's Office after being accused of using their ex-students' data to target those most likely to be extra alma to their mater. An investigation by the Daily Mail published today claimed the Russell Group used "wealth screening firms" to analyse their …

  1. wolfetone Silver badge

    £9,000 per year per student in student fees not enough for them?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Certainly not. When your Vice-chancellor expects a salary of a quarter of a million quid, and a £2m index-linked pension pot, the money has to come from somewhere. And a good chunk of the money to fill the £12-17 billion pound deficit in the Universities Superannuation Fund is going to have to be added to student fees; if done over ten years that's "only" another £400 a year on tuition fees. Then there's the pressure to push as many students as possible onto four years programmes leading to MA, MSc or MEng, for no obvious benefit to most of those students.

      I am so delighted that my lad has just been offered a degree apprenticeship with a world class engineering business, and isn't going to be funding (as much, and in quite the same way) the disgusting racket that UK universities have become.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Quite.

        Didn't help that all their fixed funding was removed when we switched to the new fees scheme, either. Reminder: The new scheme managed to, somehow:

        - Reduce funding for universities unless they increased student numbers by 50%

        - Increase government spend unless they managed to get loan repayments to impossible levels

        - Increase interest rates to 7%, a rate on par with paying for your degree on a bloody credit card

        - Sell off the existing loan book for cents on the dollar

        But hey, we've got market forces now and that's great!

      2. DavCrav Silver badge

        "I am so delighted that my lad has just been offered a degree apprenticeship with a world class engineering business, and isn't going to be funding (as much, and in quite the same way) the disgusting racket that UK universities have become."

        There are some problems with executive pay in universities, absolutely. The pension pot hole is largely a product of pensions holidays in the 1990s and record low interest rates now mucking up long-term rate projections. Although given the 25 basis point increase in the base rate, we can probably knock half a billion off that deficit.

      3. TVU Silver badge

        "I am so delighted that my lad has just been offered a degree apprenticeship with a world class engineering business, and isn't going to be funding (as much, and in quite the same way) the disgusting racket that UK universities have become"

        I think it's really cynical of these high tuition fee universities to sneakily sniff out potentially wealthy alumni to try and tap them up for cash when all they then do is blow the cash on huge vice-chancellor and other senior officials' salaries (hi, University of Bath) and bonuses while academic, technical and administrative staff just get 1% pay increases.

        In other instances. the donated monies are diverted to slush funds to fund non-disclosure employment dispute case agreements to prevent high profile employment disputes from going public and then damaging the reputations of the universities concerned (hint: it's far better to treat your staff well in the first place).

    2. DavCrav Silver badge

      "£9,000 per year per student in student fees not enough for them?"

      1) It's £9 250/year now. That kind of attention to detail is what a university education might bring you.

      2) Funding per pupil at secondary school is currently £6 300/year. In order for universities to charge more than £6k they need to have 'access agreements'. In effect this is spending millions on poor kids. Now, this might well be a good thing, but it comes out of that £9 250 that everyone pays. It's really about £7.5k net.

      3) It turns out that it's expensive to produce really qualified individuals, and engage in world-leading research. Who knew? (The UK has, per capita, the best universities in the world. I mean per capita because the US has more great universities, but has five times as many people, so would do.)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        3) It turns out that it's expensive to produce really qualified individuals, and engage in world-leading research.

        And strangely, it appears that the aim of the education system in the UK is now to push everyone into university, whether it is needed for their future careers or not.

        So those tuition fees for all the many graduates who end up behind the counter at Burger King were well worth it and continue to fund our world-leading University salaries.

        1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge
          Flame

          And strangely, it appears that the aim of the education system in the UK is now to push everyone into university, whether it is needed for their future careers or not.

          The decision to upgrade all the Polytechnics to University was, IMHO, a bad decision and the root of the problems.

          There is a place for both the Polytechnics and the Universities. (And also the apprenticeships which the government has now realised are a good idea) There is no one-size fits all.

      2. wolfetone Silver badge

        ""£9,000 per year per student in student fees not enough for them?"

        1) It's £9 250/year now. That kind of attention to detail is what a university education might bring you.

        2) Funding per pupil at secondary school is currently £6 300/year. In order for universities to charge more than £6k they need to have 'access agreements'. In effect this is spending millions on poor kids. Now, this might well be a good thing, but it comes out of that £9 250 that everyone pays. It's really about £7.5k net.

        3) It turns out that it's expensive to produce really qualified individuals, and engage in world-leading research. Who knew? (The UK has, per capita, the best universities in the world. I mean per capita because the US has more "

        Isn't it funny that those who received their university education for free take great pride in telling generations after them how expensive it all is and that we really all should be paying for it.

        1. DavCrav Silver badge

          "Isn't it funny that those who received their university education for free take great pride in telling generations after them how expensive it all is and that we really all should be paying for it."

          (I got my education for free because I was one of the poor ones, going up on the cusp of fees being introduced.) It is perfectly affordable if only a few people go to university. If we go back to universities being gatekeepers to force the working class to know their place, then yes, it can be paid for by general taxation.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        spending millions on poor kids

        Sorry but I'm not letting that one fly.

        Everyone pays the fee's through student loans, there are no poor kids getting a free university education.

        An access agreements is where the college or university in order to charge the higher rate of fees publishes it's agreement to allow universal access to all.

        I might be wrong so please feel free to correct me.

        1. Alister Silver badge

          Re: spending millions on poor kids

          Everyone pays the fee's through student loans

          Greengrocer's University education?

          1. lglethal Silver badge
            Devil

            Re: spending millions on poor kids

            I still cant believe that when student fees were first talked about being introduced, there wasnt a push from the student unions to require all sitting MP's who voted for the introduction to be required to pay the same fee for their degrees as current students do. Plus interest of course.

            Considering most went to Oxbridge, the screams from Westminster might have actually made the fees far more reasonable. Probably not though, Politicians are excellent at worming their way out of paying things they expect the rest of us to.

            (Disclaimer - more than 10 years out of Uni and I'm still sitting on A$20k of loans. I'm not bitter... )

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: spending millions on poor kids

          Everyone pays the fee's[sic] through student loans, there are no poor kids getting a free university education.

          Not free, but paid by various bodies.

          I talked to my nephew about this not so long ago. He benefited from a scholarship based on merit, and a bursary based on means-testing. Overall, much closer to my (Thatcher-era) experience than the headlines would have you believe. Seems to me the biggest scandal - apart from those of politicisation - is lack of transparency.

      4. Alan Brown Silver badge

        "It turns out that it's expensive to produce really qualified individuals, and engage in world-leading research. "

        Yes, but these kinds of researchers aren't paid rock-star salaries and landing them with these kinds of debts that are happening means that a large number of people are choosing other careers.

        On top of which, if your doctor/dentist/accountant/vet/other professional services is graduating with $LARGE_DEBT on their shoulders, they're going to want to charge more to make up for it - which is what's happening - at which point entitled Baby Boomers whine about the ripoff charges and try to force them down.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      £9,000 per year per student in student fees not enough for them?

      I have two children at University. One is doing a social science degree and has 3-4 lectures per week and has to write several essays a week.

      The other is doing a science degree. They have 10-12 lectures per week, plus 10-15 hours of labs per week. Then all the post lab analysis, write-ups, etc.

      They both get charged the same £9K tuition fee. Which one do you think is getting best value for money?

      1. Teiwaz Silver badge

        Back before all the polytechs went Uni...

        I went to one, then transferred to a Uni.

        Teaching quality much better at non-Uni at the time.The Lecturers just didn't have time/weren't interested in undergrads.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Back before all the polytechs went Uni...

          Teaching quality much better at non-Uni at the time.

          The real advantage of the Polytechnics was that they didn't award degrees in their own right, the Council for National Academic Awards did that for them. And CNAA contracted universities to quality assure the teaching of the Polytechnics. Obviously if you had a rubbish Uni do the QA, then all bets were off, but my Poly was QA'd by a Russell Group university.

          Obviously Unis attracted the best researchers, and students were therefore closer to the cutting edge of research, but they suffered from having no external validation of their teaching - whereas the Polys had to focus on the quality of their teaching, because although they did research, it was always a smaller part of the story for them.

          1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

            Re: Back before all the polytechs went Uni...

            but they suffered from having no external validation of their teaching -

            Well having spent 6 years at a Russel Group university - before moving on to academic (US) and then industrial pastures new, We had our degree material and exams assessed by another RG university - and it was serious (this is 30 odd years ago).

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I have two children at University. One is doing a social science degree and has 3-4 lectures per week and has to write several essays a week. The other is doing a science degree. They have 10-12 lectures per week, plus 10-15 hours of labs per week. Then all the post lab analysis, write-ups, etc. They both get charged the same £9K tuition fee. Which one do you think is getting best value for money?

        The one doing social science. They'll never earn enough to repay their student loan before it is written off, so they are getting a three year drinking-and-loafing holiday at the expense of either the taxpayer or your other child.

        I'd add a troll icon, except that I'm not posting this other than as very cowardly AC.

      3. fnusnu

        I think you mean 'better'.

        That's the advantage of a good education ;)

      4. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        They both get charged the same £9K tuition fee. Which one do you think is getting best value for money?

        The one who uses their social science degree to walk into a guaranteed job for life in some local authority quango or the one whose science degree gets them a 25K engineering job until it's outsourced ?

      5. This post has been deleted by its author

    4. Warm Braw Silver badge

      £9,000 per year per student in student fees not enough for them?

      The first time I was pursued for a donation by my former univeristy, it was for the educationally vital purpose of procuring a commemorative sundial, or possibly birdbath - the exact details have faded from my memory, like most of my undergraduate learning.

      Their next communication was returned with "not known at this address" and I have been untroubled since.

      Most of this alma-mater business seems to be payback to the institution concerned for putting you in proximity with the people who in future life would value your personal connection above your actual ability.

      1. Cederic

        re: sundial or birdbath

        I signed up to a regular contribution to my former university's Student Hardship Fund for the benefit of those that couldn't otherwise afford an education.

        The university wrote to me to let me know that all contributions would henceforth go into a general pot of funds, to be disbursed as they see fit.

        I no longer contribute to my former university.

    5. ibmalone Silver badge

      It isn't. If you look at the fees for non-EU students you'll get a better idea of what it actually costs. That varies by subject of course, anything where you need access to specialised equipment or materials just to do your studies is generally going to be more expensive. The better off universities also offer bursaries and other support to less well off students, and that money has to come from somewhere too.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    SO not just the universities should be investigated, how come these "wealth screening firms" have this data in the first place. Where was the consent, where was the justification and where was the oversight?

    If this has already been an issue raised by the ICO as not being allowable practice then why were the data sources not shut down as well as a result.

    It will be interesting after 25th May whether these companies can even exist.

  3. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    A Change Only Needs Novel NEUKlearer Scripts to Follow ..... For Virtually Remote Leaderships*

    A statement from the Russell Group said: “All Russell Group universities in England and Wales are registered with the Fundraising Regulator and when there are changes in guidance on best practice they will follow these closely.

    The tacit admission/implication being .... All Russell Group universities in England and Wales currently follow best practice guides?

    Who and/or what be they? And what Basic Golden Rule Instructions do they Import and Impart ..... for the Greater Good of All?

    * A Bold Statement, No Question.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A Change Only Needs Novel NEUKlearer Scripts to Follow ..... For Virtually Remote Leaderships*

      "The greater good"

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: A Change Only Needs Novel NEUKlearer Scripts to Follow ..... For Virtually Remote Leaderships*

      "The tacit admission/implication being .... All Russell Group universities in England and Wales currently follow best practice guides?"

      I also found that rather telling too. They follow "guidelines" rather than the law as written? Are they only following orders? You'd almost think that these universities don't have ethics committees they could consult on subjects such as this. I was lead to believe that ethics was about doing the right thing, not stretching the boundaries of the law so much that it takes a court case or a regulator to tell you you are doing something wrong.

  4. td0s

    daily hate mail

    such lovely folk, targetting education organisations and charities. As though this kind of thing never happens in the private sector.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: daily hate mail

      Quite possibly part of their new attack on the educated for opposing their pet schemes and calling them out as untruthful. Follows on nicely from their attach on European studies lecturers who are not following the unicorns approach to Brexit.

  5. David Harper 1

    This is nothing new.

    This is nothing new. I was called at home one evening about 25 years ago by a student fundraiser from my alma mater, one of the colleges of the University of London. He started his begging pitch by asking if I knew how little money university lecturers were paid. I told him I did, since I was a lecturer at one of the other colleges of the University of London at the time. Needless to say, the call didn't go on much longer.

    1. Anomalous Cowshed

      Re: This is nothing new.

      I was once called by a student from my old UK college. She said she was part of a new programme to connect students to old alumnuses (or whatever the blighters are called) and asked me for "advice" about life, given that I was an older, more experienced man.

      I took the bait like a complete mug, not realising that I was falling for a classic hook and line trick.

      Here I was, waxing lyrical about the meaning of life, and she drawing me out further and further, when she turned the conversation smoothly round and said something along the lines of "you know, we want everybody to have the same opportunities as you've had. To achieve this, he college wants to build a theatre and drama centre. Can you make a contribution?".

      At this point, you know you've been played a fool, and to avoid feeling ridicule, you would normally offer to make a contribution, and the call being recorded, it would be a firm commitment.

      A firm commitment to an academic institution that happens to have an endowment of £250,000,000, not including the priceless grounds, buildings and possessions of the college itself. From someone struggling to make ends meet. For building a "drama centre".

      1. TVU Silver badge

        Re: This is nothing new.

        " I was once called by a student from my old UK college. She said she was part of a new programme to connect students to old alumnuses (or whatever the blighters are called)..."

        Which one of us hasn't had a BS call like that or unsolicited begging letters through the post? In my case, I told them firmly, but politely, not to contact me again by any means and I sent their correspondence back as "Unsolicited junk mail - return to sender" and I never heard from them again.

  6. Sergey1K

    I think nowadays everybody can find a couple of bucks to invest in some ICO. I would prefer the one with the firm real estate background. Like doft.com

  7. Derichleau

    Yet the ICO won't probe the BBC for their use of leaked personal information to expose individuals who had done nothing wrong - as part of their Paradise Papers story. You had BBC reporters approaching women in the street to challenge them about their finances, when THEY'VE DONE NOTHING WRONG!

    The ICO should be all over this because there's no evidence that the journalistic exemptions around data processing apply.

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