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Number crunch

Big data affords universities both big opportunities and big responsibilities.

Information is the oxygen of the modern age, the former American president Ronald Regan declared in 1989. The ability of modern technology to harness prodigious volumes of information, including that about the behaviour of individuals, shows how prescient his comment was. As the Higher Education Commission showed in its report published on 26 January, the enormous databases that universities hold can identify trends and insights that lead to more effective methodologies and enhance the student experience. Data that would hitherto have remained dormant in the bowels of university archives can create profiles of individual students. And personal data, such as students’ access to facilities and learning resources, can be analysed to enable universities to deploy targeted student support mechanisms. Noble purposes indeed.

With great power comes great responsibility, particularly when data are used to make decisions about individuals. Big data potentially represent a form of significantly increased scrutiny of individuals. Responsibility must be exercised, therefore, not only in relation to how the data are applied, but also in relation to how they are collected.

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