Why does the UK stop students accessing their mock exam and assignments data?

UPDATE: 23.08.20 In this piece Chris Pounder identifies what the government sees as a justification for the exam scripts exemption. In a document prepared to assist adequacy discussions with the European Commission, it is said that the exemption “aims to protect the integrity of exams by ensuring that exam scripts cannot be accessed outside established processes” (on the basis that exam boards often re-use or re-purpose exam questions). However, and as Chris implies, this simply isn’t sufficient to justify the blanket exemption, not the breadth of its scope. Moreover the ICO’s meek acceptance that it permits an interpretation which even covers assignments and, presumably, other coursework, is deeply disappointing. END UPDATE.

Domestic data protection law says that students can’t later access data recorded by themselves during an exam or assessment. Why is that? And is it compatible with the UK’s obligations under GDPR and more general human rights law?

As is well known, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has direct effect on member states of the EU. This is, however, subject to certain provisions which allow member states to legislate for specific exemptions or restrictions. An example is Article 23 of GDPR, which allows member states to restrict by way of a legislative measure the scope of certain data subject rights, including the right of access at Article 15. Such restrictions must, though, respect “the essence of the fundamental rights and freedoms” and be a “necessary and proportionate measure in a democratic society” to safeguard, among a list of things, important objectives of general public interest.

The specific UK restrictions made in respect of Article 23 lie primarily in Schedule 2 of the Data Protection Act 2018. Of particular interest at the current time is the Schedule 2, paragraph 25(1) exemption to the Article 15 right of subject access which says that the right does “not apply to personal data consisting of information recorded by candidates during an exam” (and paragraph 25(4) says that “‘exam’ means an academic, professional or other examination used for determining the knowledge, intelligence, skill or ability of a candidate and may include an exam consisting of an assessment of the candidate’s performance while undertaking work or any other activity”).

Thus it is that guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) says, in relation to this year’s exam awards

The exam script exemption applies to information that has been recorded by the students themselves during an exam or assessment. Therefore students do not have a right to get copies of their answers from mock exams or assignments used to assess their performance

But why does this exemption exist? Search me. Why did it also exist in the 1998 Data Protection Act? Also, search me. Also search Hansard, like I have done, and you may struggle to find out. (Please let me know if I’ve missed something).

So in what way can the exam script exemption be said to respect the essence of the fundamental rights and freedoms and be a necessary and proportionate measure in a democratic society? Is this a case where Parliament merely nodded through a provision which it also merely nodded through 22 years ago?

Note that this is not a question as to whether information recorded by candidates during an exam is their personal data. It most certainly is, as the CJEU found in 2017 in Nowak. But note also that the court, in that case, observed that “the use of [such] information, one consequence of [the use of the information] being the candidate’s success or failure at the examination concerned, is liable to have an effect on his or her rights and interests, in that it may determine or influence, for example, the chance of entering the profession aspired to or of obtaining the post sought”. The court also noted, in holding that such information was personal data, the importance of the data subject’s rights of access, rectification and objection.

And let us remember recital 63 GDPR, which reminds us that one purpose of the right of subject access is to be able to “verify the lawfulness of the processing”. In the absence of any indication as to why the UK decided to restrict the right of access in such a way as to prevent students, especially this year’s students, accessing their own assignment and mock exam data, one must query how those students can adequately verify the lawfulness of the processing by those who determined their grades.

P.S. there is an argument that the ICO should do something about this, under its Article 57 tasks to monitor and enforce GDPR, to handle complaints from data subjects, and to advise parliament, the government, and other institutions and bodies. It has the power under Article 58 to issue an opinion to those bodies.

The views in this post (and indeed most posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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