Should big data be used to discourage poor students from university?

Should big data be used to discourage poor students from university?

Young adults born into low socioeconomic families can use an algorithm built on government-collected data to determine whether or not they should bother with their tertiary education, a representative from the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre has revealed.

It was alleged at the Data + Privacy Asia Pacific conference in Sydney on Wednesday one unnamed company is looking into use of “very detailed information” about socioeconomic backgrounds, amongst other things, to create platforms whereby young people can go in and plug in their data to receive a determination on the likelihood of their ability to continue at university.

“This group has been working on programs that educators might be appalled at, where kids would type in and it will say to them, ‘Well based on your socioeconomic background and your parents history etc you won’t do very well at university’ … or your odds are low,” the admissions centre representative explained.

A lot of data that is collected by tertiary admissions centres across Australia is mandated to go onto various government departments for a variety of reasons, but when the data is provided to other companies, Dr Simon Longstaff from the Ethics Centre said a discussion on ethical stewardship needs to be had.

“I suspect that government — in this case as in many — has acted without any thought of the ethical dimension,” Longstaff said. “Most of the time things go wrong in ethics, not because people are wicked … but because ‘everybody is doing it’.”

Longstaff said this kind of data use causes havoc in the world and questioned whether the appropriate government entities responsible for the data are taking action and apologising for misunderstanding the company’s purpose for collecting data.

Speaking with ZDNet, Anna Johnston, former New South Wales Deputy Privacy Commissioner and director at Salinger Privacy, said this type of data analytics has both a positive and a negative impact. She said questions need to be asked around why the data was collected in the first place, and then what universities — or individuals — are going to be doing with that information.

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