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New UCU Scotland report explores impact of automation in universities

11 June 2020

UCU Scotland has today published a new report looking at the impact of automation on higher education.

The report titled  ' The automatic university - a review of datafication and automation in higher education [441kb]' contains a foreward from UCU Scotland and recommendations.  The bulk of the report is work commissioned from Dr Ben Williamson from Edinburgh university's centre for research in digital education.

As universities rush to move teaching online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic the report says that the impact of how data and automation is used in universities isn't well understood and there is an urgent need for a public debate on what new technologies are doing to our universities.  Automation includes well known activities like recording lectures to be played back to students later and the use of technology to detect plagiarism and cheating by students in essays.  It also refers to less well understood areas like the use of algorithms in recruiting students and the use of technology to track's students' engagement levels and attendance and possible career paths.

It is important that students know what is being done with the data being held on them and that they understand the decisions are being made on their futures based in it.  Staff also need assurances on what happens to the lectures, information and research they put online, as well as understanding how artificial intelligence and automation can help deliver education more effectively.

The report calls on the Scottish government to set up a task group to engage with the sector to understand the implications of automation on universities.  Other recommendations include calling on universities to engage with trade unions on the impact of new technologies on staff; and for the union itself to develop further its own work on the issue.

Commenting on the report Mary Senior, Scotland official UCU, said: 'We know that automation is about more than just detecting essay cheats or in libraries. The use of data and the private companies who develop the systems and hold information, has implications for universities and more importantly, for the staff and students who work and study there. 

'This report only scratches the surface of understanding the impact of automation on higher education. The sector and Scottish government need to work together and make sure that automation works for the staff and students who are the keys to our universities, and not the companies and shareholders looking to make a profit out of higher education. The headlong rush to move teaching content online in the wake of Covid-19 means the need to understand what is happening is timely and urgent.'

Last updated: 12 June 2020