Class lists are displayed every year outside Senate HouseLouis Ashworth

After long campaigns and two referendums in which Cambridge students and Fellows opted to save them, new privacy laws may mean that Class Lists disappear after all.

EU data protection laws, which will come into effect in 2018, mean that Cambridge may have to introduce a system where students have to opt-in to having their exam results displayed.

Varsity has seen an excerpt from unconfirmed minutes of the General Board Education Committee. In it, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Graham Virgo, who led a review which called for the abolition of the Lists last year, said new rules “place greater emphasis on active consent being sought from data subjects for data collection and use, and it had been suggested that moving to an opt-in system for publication of Class Lists might consequently be necessary.”

The law will not come into effect until May next year – meaning that questions over Britain’s continued membership of the EU could now come into play. The University has sought legal advice, which indicated that the new rules may mean students have to give explicit permission for their results to be published.

“The University is currently considering the potential effects of this legislation,” a University spokesperson told Varsity, “including the possibility that the public display of class lists may change to an opt-in system – but no decisions have yet been made.”

Class Lists, bearing the names and grade classifications of students, are currently published at the end of the academic year – appearing both online, and on boards in front of Senate House. They have been the subject of some controversy, following campaigns claiming they are damaging to student welfare.

In December, fellows and senior members voted to keep the Lists, overturning a motion for abolition which was first revealed by Varsity in April. A student campaign, ‘Save The Class List’ also called a referendum of the student body, which took place in November. In it, students voted to keep the current system of publication, but called for a more simplified system for students to opt out from having their results displayed.

At present, there is an opt-out system in place for students who do not wish their results to appear to opt out, but it requires several stages of approval. The student referendum’s demands were based on the possibility of there being a checkbox online, which exam candidates could untick should they not wish to have their results published. If the new EU rules come into effect, this could be replaced with a system in which students instead have to explicitly confirm they want their results to be seen publicly.

Roberta Huldisch, CUSU’s Education Officer, said the students’ union is “committed to supporting class lists with an unconditional opt out system,” but added “we may need to rethink how we can honour this mandate while not breaking the law” if data protection rules change.

“Until the legal situation has been clarified,” she said, “I will keep pushing for a review of the current opt out system to make it simpler and less restrictive for students this academic year.”

The legal issue at stake, however, is not entirely clear-cut: under the terms of the new EU law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), “explicit consent” is required for handling “special categories of personal data”, but it is not clear whether exam data falls within these categories.

There is also a question over whether the law will be implemented. Professor Catherine Barnard, Professor of European Union Law at Trinity College, told Varsity that “even with a hard Brexit, the UK has committed itself to giving effect to all EU regulations and so the GDPR would at present be included.” Yet the possibility remains that the law could be repealed if the UK exits the European Union.

It also still leaves up in the air the question of how this year’s results will be handled. Professor Graham Virgo, who led the review which initially recommended abolition, is now heading up a working group on the future of publication policies.

At CUSU Council on Monday, President Amatey Doku said that the students’ union was pressing for publication reform. He told Varsity that he expressed support for an opt-out “at the very least.”

In a joint statement, the leaders of the ‘Save The Class List’ campaign – Jack Drury, Rajiv Shah and Nicholas Taylor – said that “speculative legal advice that contradicts the guidance of Government officials, regarding an EU regulation that is unlikely to be implemented following Brexit, should not be used to undermine the votes of majorities of students and fellows.”

They said they were “sceptical” that the new laws would mean the lists could not be published, pointing to existing guidance for schools which allows exam results to be released.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, one of the leaders of the ‘Our Grade, Our Choice’ campaign – which initially campaigned for an opt-out, but eventually backed abolition during the student referendum – tentatively welcomed the news.

“It is currently unclear how Brexit will affect class lists in the future”, she said “as this legislation is coming from the EU – and who even knows what Brexit means – but right now it’s good to see the University taking serious steps in changing a damaging process. I sincerely hope that the University keeps in mind how damaging and problematic class lists are to so many minority groups at the University when they make their final decision on this matter.”