Universities agree to share data on students to improve safety

Agreement, which sector leaders believe can help tackle sexual assault and gender-based violence, follows campaigning from rape survivor Ellie Wilson, whose attackee was able to move institutions and continue studies

Universities across Scotland hope to improve student safety with a new national policy on collecting and sharing data on students’ criminal charges and convictions.

The initiative comes in response to the work of campaigner Ellie Wilson, whose rapist was able to continue his studies at the University of Edinburgh after he was suspended by the University of Glasgow while awaiting trial. Wilson found through freedom of information requests students facing criminal charges were routinely allowed on campus to study.

She also discovered that universities did not share information on the outcomes of sex-related disciplinary hearings, leaving offenders able to make fresh starts at institutions that potentially knew nothing about their past actions. 

The new approach, adopted by all of Scotland’s 19 universities, aims to improve consistency, transparency and robustness in the use of data on a sector-wide basis. It will make data collection mandatory for all institutions as part of a student’s initial entry to university, at the post-offer stage, as well as annually on re-enrolment and will also apply to postgraduates.  

The new approach will ask for any relevant unspent criminal convictions and criminal charges, including charges and convictions relating to violent and sexual offences. The data collection is also verified to remove false positives and then be used as part of a risk assessment process to improve student safety from other students. 

Universities Scotland said that the new process would be attentive to the needs of all students, including universities’ role in supporting rehabilitation. 

In 2018, UCAS, the university and college admission service, ceased collection of data on relevant unspent criminal convictions from students at the initial point of application due to the introduction of UK data protection legislation.  

At that point, universities adopted their own approaches, which can vary greatly. 

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Universities Scotland said the next stage in the development would be to produce guidance for institutions to support implementation and communication materials for prospective students and key stakeholder to support the understanding of the changes.  

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “Scotland’s 19 universities have worked together to establish a robust legal basis for the consistent collection and processing of student personal data relating to relevant unspent criminal convictions and relevant criminal charges. On face value this is a complex data policy change for institutions, but it is motivated by student safety and universities’ ongoing work to prevent gender-based violence on campus. Most institutions are already collecting some student data about relevant unspent criminal convictions; this project is significant because all of Scotland’s universities have taken the unprecedented step of moving, as one, into the collection and processing of data on relevant criminal charges on a consistent basis. In doing so, it responds to campaigners’ calls for greater consistency and transparency, while also addressing points raised by rehabilitation charities. “

“Universities will make careful use of these data to assess if a student with relevant unspent convictions or charges poses a risk to the wider university community and take appropriate action to mitigate or eliminate that risk. This work has required careful navigation of data protection legislation, to ensure institutions are acting proportionately and by necessity. Universities have also sought to balance their commitment to student safety with their belief in access and the powerful role that education can play in the journey of rehabilitation. We have no wish to put up barriers to education where individuals pose no risk to others. Securing declarations of relevant unspent convictions and charges from offer holders, separate from the applications process is a key foundation, underpinning proportionality. 

“We want to give credit to Ellie Wilson and Fiona Drouet of the Emily Test for their significant campaigning on this issue and for the bravery they both continue to show by channelling their lived experience into policy change that will benefit others.”

This article originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood

Ruaraidh Gilmour

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