UCAS has made nine years of university and college admissions data accessible through the Administrative Data Research Network, as part of a shared commitment to understanding equality of access to higher education.
Posted Mon 31 October 2016 - 10:03

The agreement allows trained researchers to study, for example, the relationship between a student’s background, predicted grades and course choices and their likelihood of entering university.

When linked securely with other data it can also help them understand many wider social issues.  The power of such evidence-based research lies in helping key decision makers across the UK understand how education contributes to social mobility.

The Network exists to enable researchers to work with linked, de-identified administrative data in a safe and secure way that puts public benefit at the heart of their research. Its directors have welcomed the new agreement which sees UCAS admissions data from 2007-2015 released into the programme immediately, with annual updates to follow.

The data will be curated by the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex, and researchers will be able to apply for permission to access and link the data at any of the Network’s four secure Research Centres (in Edinburgh, Swansea, Belfast and Southampton).

The ADRN data supply complements UCAS’ annual programme of data and analysis covering many aspects of admissions to higher education. This includes analysis of how likely different groups are to enter university (by sex, area-based background and ethnic group) and of factors influencing access such as offer-making by universities.

Melanie Wright, Director of the Administrative Data Service which coordinates the Network, said: “This is a very welcome move, which will allow for more and better research across the UK using data.

“We hope it will be part of a steady flow of information, which also includes government departments and other agencies.

“This will give researchers access to valuable data in an environment which maintains the confidentiality of personal data.”

UCAS’ Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook said: “This agreement with the ADRN provides an additional route for researchers to access valuable data on applicants to higher education and to enrich it through linking with other datasets.  The ADRN process allows statistical analysis to be carried out on detailed individual level data with the strongest possible safeguards on applicant confidentiality.”

Before any researcher can see the data, the Administrative Data Research Network makes sure any information which directly identifies people is removed from the data. The Network also provides a secure environment for the researcher to work in. They cannot take any data out of this environment, and their results will be checked before publication to make sure they are relevant to the project and don’t disclose any information about individuals.

Administrative data is the term for information built up by government departments and agencies when registering people, carrying out transactions, or for record keeping. It can include social security, health and tax records – or, in this case, educational data. Linking these data collections together can give researchers an in-depth and accurate picture of society, and the findings have the potential to influence future government policy and how politicians and others evaluate existing policies, with the ultimate aims of benefiting society.

Notes to editors

The Administrative Data Research Network is a UK-wide partnership between universities, government departments and agencies, national statistics authorities, the third sector, funders and researchers. It was set up, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, to help trained researchers carry out social and economic research using linked, de-identified administrative data – information which is routinely collected by government organisations.

UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is a charity and is the UK’s shared admissions service for higher education. It manages applications from around 700,000 applicants each year for full-time undergraduate courses at over 380 universities and colleges across the UK.

UCAS’ published data include application and acceptance figures by country, region and constituency, as well as entry and offer rates for individual universities by the sex, age and background of applicants.

There are around 2 million data points published on UCAS’ website in re-usable format, to help understanding of who applies and enters university, the qualifications they hold, where they apply and what subjects they choose to study.

The detailed data supplied by UCAS for research use will be held at the UK Data Archive – the largest collection of digital data in the social sciences and humanities in the United Kingdom, which has been certified under the international ISO 27001 standard for information security. The Archive is based at the University of Essex.

‘De-identified’ data

All the information which can directly identify people is removed before any researcher can see data through the Administrative Data Research Network. This includes information such as:

  • names
  • addresses
  • date of birth
  • National Insurance number
  • passport number
  • drivers licence number

So, the researcher will have all the information they need for research but it will not be directly linked to any individual. Researchers will be examining large collections of data, and looking at the big picture.

The service was established to securely link administrative data from different sources to help researchers obtain evidence-based knowledge of social and economic challenges in society – for example, linking health or unemployment records to educational records. Doing this produces a richer set of information that can significantly improve research, and ultimately provides support for policy development and change.

For example, Oxford University’s Index of Multiple Deprivation uses data from the NHS, HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions to pinpoint which areas of the country are most deprived and in need of investment.

Before any researcher using the Network can carry out their work, though, the data are linked and de-identified. The organisations holding the data sources split the data into two parts:

  • the information (such as names, full addresses, dates of birth, etc.) which can directly identify you
  • the rest of the information (attribute data)

Both parts are given a reference number. A trusted third party uses the identifying information part to match the unique reference numbers from different sources. The identifying information is then destroyed, leaving only the matched unique reference numbers − called a linkage key. The Network then links the de-identified attribute data using the linkage key, without ever seeing the identities of the individuals in the data.


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