Student identifiers – how hard can it be?

Much of my work in the past decade has been pursuing the standardisation and rationalisation of data flows in education. Although my work has focussed on higher education, the basic tenets apply to schools and further education as well. The desire to standardise our data definitions is driven by a broader vision where data can be more easily shared and re-purposed, thus cutting down duplication in data collections and processing. The phrase “collect once, use many times” is wheeled out with the regularity of a cuckoo clock as leaders across the landscape push again to bring more order to this messy and occasionally chaotic landscape.

In my experience, conversations about standardising data definitions often start with the words “why don’t we just….?” This is a problem. The world is often surprisingly complex and the edge cases and oddities often make universal data definitions more difficult than they initially appear. While we understandably struggle with complex concepts like course delivery and academic disciplines, you would have thought that we could create a universally applicable identifier for students. After all, students – or learners – are people and there can be very little confusion about what a person is, even in the most abstract data models.

The Unique Learner Number was launched in 2008 after a number of years’ development under the Managing Information Across Partners (MIAP) programme. The aim was deceptively simple: create a unique identifier that would stay with a person throughout their lifelong learning journey and enable a suite of joined-up IAG services and records of achievement. The ULN was launched a couple of years after the UK Identity Cards Act and there was a broader, sometimes vociferous debate about civil liberties, privacy and the threat of ‘Big Brother’. The nation that gave the world George Orwell has a very particular take on some of these issues and the launch of the ULN was front-page news in the Daily Telegraph as the paper railed against the launch of identity cards through the ‘back door’.

Of course the UK has a number of nation-wide personal identifiers including ones for national insurance, the NHS, passports and driving licences. These were all considered for use in education but variously rejected for reasons including security and coverage.

The ULN works in places but it remains a long way from being the universal lifelong learning number that was originally envisaged. It is now mandated at publicly-funded schools and FE colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but you will probably not have a ULN if you are at an independent school, from outside the UK or over 30. You will also not have a ULN if you are Scottish since Scotland operates a Scottish Candidate Number (SCN) which started life as an identifier to operate the Scottish examinations system but has now become a de-facto learner identifier from primary school onwards. In higher education there are separate personal identifiers used by UCAS, the SLC and the HE statistics agency because the ULN cannot meet the coverage and quality requirements of these organisations.

So here’s the rub. Data standards only deliver game-changing benefits when they have universal and consistent adoption. Until they reach that point they are simply another burden to provider’s data systems that deliver some benefits to people and processes that are often far away. Even a data entity as fundamental as the ‘person’ does not have a unique, universal identifier today…and I don’t think it is going to happen any time soon.