Is a universal (and cradle to grave) identity number on the way for all Australian students?
The government is now seeking to create a mandatory universal identifier for all Vocational Education and Training (VET) students. Under proposed legislation, the identifier would cover anywhere between 2.3 million and 2.7 million people.
But given the history of implementing universal identifiers in Australia and the potential for education providers to misuse or mishandle a student’s information, we should be wary of going too far down this path.
The Australia Card and other mishaps
Two decades ago the national government failed to establish a universal identity card – the Australia Card – for all citizens.
The card was promoted as the basis of increased efficiency in public administration, consumer convenience and other goods.
Its failure to progress from grand vision to concrete reality comes from strong opposition by civil society advocates and, just as importantly, to infighting among the Commonwealth bureaucracy.
The government learnt two lessons from the experience. Rely on sectoral identity schemes rather than explicitly multi-purpose (and multi-department) identifiers. Reassure anxious voters by emphasising plans for discrete databases rather than bits of plastic that might be checked by police, other officials or those in the private sector.
As a result we have seen the Tax File Number scheme, which in practice involves an almost ubiquitous identifier. This has received less criticism because it does not feature a mandatory photo-ID card.
We have also seen the emergence of the national e-Health scheme – a system for identifying all Australians and their electronic health records. Like its overseas counterparts (for instance the UK) the scheme is proving to be more expensive than expected, is late, has delighted IT consultants – e-Health megaprojects are nice earners - but has not been embraced by most medical practitioners or patients.
Many of Australia’s over 30,000 practitioners are keen to improve service but few clinicians in private practice have signed on.
The student scheme
When it comes to the student ID scheme, the identifier will take the form of a unique student number, allocated on a lifetime basis.
As a result, an individual will use the same number at every institution in which they are enrolled and for every course.
From descriptions of the scheme so far, students will need to give consent and will be alerted to the nature of the scheme.
In practice, the identifier will be mandatory because the over 4,000 VET service providers will be prohibited from providing transcripts and testamurs if the student has not supplied the identifier.
The legislation, the Student Identifiers Bill 2013, if passed, will also establish a new national agency to supervise the scheme. Identifier information will be accessible by researchers and VET policy-makers, by officials engaged in enforcement action, and by educational institutions.
Those institutions will be regarded as Commonwealth government agencies for the purposes of the scheme, for example in relation to the national Privacy Act. It appears that some institutions will also be located offshore.
Word to the wise
Given Australia’s history with poor performance by private VET bodies and on occasion their abrupt collapse, we would be wise to be wary about large amounts of lifelong personal information being used, misused or simply misplaced by entities with questionable professionalism and low supervision.
The legislation envisages the national Privacy Commissioner would deal with such concerns. But this would be problematic for several reasons. The Commissioner lacks resources, has uncertain technical expertise and has been recurrently criticised by civil society advocates for an unduly permissive stance regarding public/private sector practice.
Invoking a lame and perhaps timid watchdog is not a good fix for potentially serious privacy problems.
An ID for all students?
There is another underlying issue with the identifier proposal. Will bureaucrats seek to extend the scheme – and thereby gain more information for policy research and service evaluation – to cover all recipients of education?
In principle it is a small step to extend a whole-of-life VET identifier to become a cradle-to-grave (K12-to-university and beyond) identifier covering all students.
There would be social goods in building such a deep pool of data about educational attainment and participation. But there would also need to be a proper evaluation of any bureaucratic ambitions.
Public consultation about the current scheme has been limited to “the usual suspects” and it is regrettable that there has not been a greater engagement with the community at large.
Belated opportunities for that engagement will be provided through a Senate Committee’s consideration of the legislation.
Measures that strengthen the under-recognised (and underfunded) VET sector are admirable. So are measures to enhance the student experience and facilitate quality improvement through access to better information. We need to be wary, however, of project creep and of a potential disregard for privacy protection.