Student Loans Company applicants should expect to have their Facebook posts and social media activity vetted as part of the approval process, despite a senior MP condemning such surveillance as “sinister, KGB knock-on-the-door” tactics.
Christian Brodie, the SLC’s chair, told a committee of MPs that the company gathered evidence from social media to determine eligibility for student loans because it regarded personal Facebook accounts as a public source of information.
“If people have public sources of information about themselves then they must expect that will be looked at,” Brodie told parliament’s education select committee.
The SLC came under fire this summer when it emerged the company had spied on the social media accounts of 150 students applying for full maintenance loans after being estranged from their families.
In one case the MPs highlighted, a student who received a Christmas gift from their parent was told the interaction on Facebook meant they were ineligible to be classed as estranged, which would have qualified them for a maintenance loan without means-testing.
“We’re talking a £70 Christmas present, for goodness sake, not an ongoing financial commitment,” the Labour MP Ian Mears told Brodie. “And a decision was taken, on the basis of that, to withdraw and review that student’s finance. I just think that’s unbelievable,” he said.
Brodie defended the SLC’s practice under robust questioning from the committee’s chair, the Conservative MP Robert Halfon.
“Social media tends to be public. We have a duty to make sure that the taxpayers’ funds are being properly disbursed, and if there are public sources of information the terms and conditions on which people apply allow us to look at public sources of information,” he said.
Halfon repeatedly pressed Brodie to say whether he personally approved of the SLC’s use of social media to uncover sensitive information.
“Surely that is an abuse. You’re creating a surveillance society. How can it be right to trawl people’s social media accounts?” Halfon said. “I find this really sinister, to be honest, because people don’t always use privacy settings and they might have deeply emotional issues or family trauma, rightly or wrongly.”
Despite receiving eight questions in succession from Halfon, the SLC’s non-executive chair kept to his position. “Parliament requires we have a duty to look after public funds,” he said.
“It doesn’t say you should trawl through Facebook accounts,” Halfon replied.
Earlier in the hearing Paula Sussex, the SLC’s newly appointed chief executive, told the committee that the company’s handling of the issue “could have been a lot better, clearly”.
“We’ve taken away several lessons from very many points in the organisation, and it’s now my job to oversee them being delivered,” she said.
Asked by Mears if the episode showed that the SLC needed to be humanised in the way it operated, Sussex replied: “It’s very difficult for me to say after five weeks to say if it is human or not. I think listening more carefully, and perhaps having the courage to say, ‘This doesn’t feel quite right’.
“But when you’re in a frontline service, and you’ve got rising demand, phones ringing off the hook, queues, et cetera, it’s quite hard to develop that muscle.”