Teenagers applying to university or other further education providers were wrongly signed up to receive adverts about mobile phones, energy drinks and other commercial products and services, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has ruled today. The regulator found that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) broke electronic marketing rules and has required the service to change its practices.

The ICO began its investigation after a newspaper article published in March 2014 raised concerns about UCAS’ application form. The form only allowed applicants to opt-out of receiving marketing from commercial companies if they un-ticked three boxes covering marketing emails, post and text messages. The wording of the opt out also meant that un-ticking these boxes would result in the applicant not receiving information about career opportunities and education providers or health information.

The ICO has ruled that this approach meant applicants felt obliged to let UCAS use their information for commercial purposes, otherwise they’d potentially miss out on important information about their career or education. This breaches the Data Protection Act, which requires personal information to be processed fairly, and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, which govern electronic marketing and require consent to be given freely and for a specific purpose.

ICO Head of Enforcement, Stephen Eckersley, said:

“Each year, more than half a million teenagers register with UCAS to apply for a place in higher education. UCAS has a responsibility to ensure that applicants can make free and balanced choices. By failing to give these applicants a clear option to avoid marketing, they were being unfairly faced with the default option of having their details used for commercial purposes. Our guidance is clear that consent must be freely given and specific.

“We are pleased that UCAS has agreed to address this issue and will now update their form so that people can make an informed decision on whether they are happy to receive marketing, or not. This can only be a good thing for our aspiring students by helping them to keep up-to-date on the information they want, while avoiding the hassle of unwanted marketing.”

UCAS will update its registration form and privacy policy so that applicants can make a clear and informed decision about how their information is used. The organisation will also carry out user testing to make sure these updated documents are fully understood by its users.

Former and current UCAS applicants can change their marketing preferences on the UCAS website, or by using the unsubscribe options in any emails they have received.

 

Notes to Editors

  1. The Information Commissioner’s Office upholds information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.
  2. The ICO has specific responsibilities set out in the Data Protection Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.
  3. The ICO is on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Read more in the ICO blog and e-newsletter. Our Press Office page provides more information for journalists.
  4. Anyone who processes personal information must comply with eight principles of the Data Protection Act, which make sure that personal information is:

  • Fairly and lawfully processed
  • Processed for limited purposes
  • Adequate, relevant and not excessive
  • Accurate and up to date
  • Not kept for longer than is necessary
  • Processed in line with your rights
  • Secure
  • Not transferred to other countries without adequate protection