Examinations, assessment and the publication of results


Provisions of the Data Protection Act relating explicitly to the conduct of examinations

For the purposes of the Data Protection Act 1998, 'examinations' are defined as follows:

Any process for determining the knowledge, intelligence, skill or ability of a candidate by reference to her/his performance in any test, work or other activity

It will be noted that this is a broad definition, which for universities extends beyond what is normally understood by "examinations", and includes, for example, tests taken by candidates for admission or employment.

There are special provisions and interpretations under the Act which relate to personal data generated in the course of examination processes. These may be summarised as follows:

  • Time limits for the retention of data

The right to receive a reply to a Data Subject Access Request for assessment outcomes or examiners' comments may be longer than the standard 28 days. Data Subjects whose requests relate to examinations have the right to a reply within five months of their request, or 28 days after the announcement of the results of the assessment, whichever is the shorter period.

This means that it is in most cases impossible to withhold data relating to coursework assessments or formal papers taken in advance until after a decision is made to award a degree, as has in the past happened with some taught postgraduate degrees. In the event of a Data Subject Access Request relating to marks or other data related to the assessment process, all relevant data held must be disclosed within five months (regardless of whether it is held in College or at some other location).

This does not imply that there is a legal obligation to mark material for assessment within five months to enable disclosure to the student (although prompt feedback is widely felt to be good pedagogical practice). However, if work has been marked then there will be an obligation to disclose data generated by this process within the five-month time-limit.

  • Data to which examination candidates have legal right of access as Data Subjects

Candidates have the right to see comments made on their assessed work (by internal or external examiners) but do not have a right to see their own scripts (or to be told the identity of the examiner where this is not obvious - see below).

This normally means that examinations should be organised in a such a way that examiners' comments (from both internal and external examiners) can be made available to students in intelligible form without the script (eg by the use of coversheets).

Where marks are released to students while they are still subject to confirmation by an examination board, it is the responsibility of the person authorising the release of data to satisfy themselves that students are being informed of its provisional status. (This includes any marks seen by a second year undergraduate Board which may be subject to modification by a third-year Board.)

Examination results of Students in Debt to the College

Students who are in debt to the College at the time of publication of their final examination results are informed that until their debt is settled they can only obtain their results by making a Data Subject Access Request, which will result in their obtaining their examination marks without any official transcript or certificate. See the section on Making a Data Subject Access request.


Examiners should be aware that anything which they write in the course of an assessment may be disclosed in the event of a Data Subject Access request by a candidate.

In the case of External Examiners it is the responsibility of the Quality, Planning and Academic Governance Department, when offering appointments, to draw their attention to this, and to discourage them from mentioning individual students by name in their reports.

Heads of Department and others should be aware that nomination forms, and any correspondence about External Examiner appointments, may be seen by the nominee concerned should he/she make a Data Subject Access Request.

Automated decisions on assessment outcomes

The General Data Protection Regulation and the 1998 Act provides Data Subjects with specific rights to be informed of the logic of any purely automated decision that significantly affects them. In the context of examinations this would mean that a mark was recorded against a student's name without any human monitoring of the automated outcome which would might cause the outcome of the assessment to be modified.

Other than in respect of the degree classification formula (which is published), in practice this is likely to occur at Goldsmiths only occasionally - in relation to records held in departments of coursework marks from certain types of multiple choice exercise.

Those departments which have any coursework or other marks assigned on the basis of purely automated decisions must have a formal statement freely available to students (eg in the Student Handbook), explaining the logic behind any assessment or grading system that is based entirely on automated means. No new automated decision-making may be introduced until such a formal statement has been approved by the Head of Department.