UK university admissions service sells applicants' data to energy drink companies

UCAS is the UK post-secondary admissions service, and is the sole means of applying to most British tertiary institutions. It has been caught selling its applicants' data to marketing departments hoping to sell Microsoft products, mobile phone contracts and energy beverages to young people. UCAS warehouses data on children as young as 16. UCAS doesn't deny selling applicants' data, but insists that it violated no laws, because the students whose data it sold did not opt out of "mailings" (opting out of mailings with UCAS also means you won't receive information from educational institutions and potential employers).

UCAS's "UCAS Media" offshoot advertises access to children's data with the slogan, "We help them reach uni – we help you reach them." Another UCAS company, UCAS Progress, collects data on children aged 13-16 and asks them to opt into marketing pitches as well. A third of UCAS's income comes from selling university applicants' data to third parties.

Ucas Media promotes its services to potential clients by emphasising the unique richness and accuracy of its data and the trust associated with its brand. Almost every student applying to a British university from the UK or overseas must use the online Ucas application gateway, which requires them to provide up-to-date identity and contact details. "We help them reach uni – we help you reach them," Ucas Media tells potential advertisers.

There is no suggestion that Ucas Media is breaking the law in selling access to data about university applicants and schoolchildren. It does not sell individuals' data directly, but markets access to it, using its own channels to deliver marketing – and keeping possession of a rich and highly valuable bank of personal information.

University applicants are given the option of refusing mailings when they register with Ucas. However, they have to opt out rather than in, and Ucas's application form does not disaggregate commercial mailings from information from education providers and employers.

As a result students who reject product mailings risk missing out on course information and potential career opportunities.

Ucas sells access to student data for phone and drinks firms' marketing [Lucy Ward/Guardian]