For a solely personal character reference by Q51OE9


									                                                                                            Appendix A


The provision of a reference to a current or former student is an important service provided by the
staff of the University and enables the University to enhance our graduates’ employability through
the provision of personalised endorsements of their character and achievements, specific to positions
and study programmes for which they are making applications.
This procedure has been compiled to enable the University to comply with external reference points
(The QAA Code of Practice on Careers Advice, Education and Guidance and the Data Protection
Act 1998) and to ensure that there is a minimum service level for the provision of references to
students across the University.
It consists of two sections: Section A covers the principles of meeting student requests and Section B
contains guidance for staff actively engaged in writing references. The Procedures are designed to
cater for the needs of all students, but acceptable variation to meet the needs of particular student
groups, such as research students, is highlighted where appropriate.


1.    Provision of References
1.1   Every reasonable effort should be made to meet a request for a reference for a student who has
      undertaken study within a Department or Centre of the University, within a minimum period
      of three years following his/her departure from the University. Requests received outside of
      this time scale may, of course, be met if a member of staff is equipped with the necessary
      information on the student and is willing to provide a reference. In the case of research
      students, it would be normal to expect to provide a reference for a more extended period of up
      to ten years.
1.2   Factual statements including details of the period of study and marks may be provided to meet
      requests received for students who have departed more than three years ago, where no
      individual member of staff is available to supply a reference, drawing on records held in the
      departmental office or within the central administration.

2.    Record Keeping and Retention
2.1   A copy of any reference issued should be retained within the Department or Centre for a
      period of three academic years after the academic year during which it is provided. In the case
      of research students a copy may be retained for an extended period of up to ten academic
      years. According to departmental practices and functional organisation, this may be retained
      by the individual member of staff or within the departmental office, as appropriate. The
      departmental office should maintain, as a minimum, a record of students that have received
      references and the member of staff who accommodated the request.
2.2   The Data Protection Act seeks to protect data subjects by ensuring that data is not held
      unnecessarily past the point that it is relevant to do so. If a department wishes to retain a copy
      of the reference for longer than the recommended retention period in 2.1 above, in order to
      comply with the “fair processing of data” aspect of the Data Protection Act, it is necessary to
      inform the individual student that their particular reference is not being treated in accordance
      with the established policy on references (ie it will be retained longer than the recommended
2.3   If a reference is retained for a longer time period, the department must be clear about the
      intentions for doing so. It is not always advisable to re-issue an existing reference after an
      extended period of time, because it is important that references are accurate and current. An
      existing reference must be reviewed carefully if it is proposed to re-issue it to meet a fresh
      request, to be certain that the fact and opinions contained therein are still current and relevant
      to the individual’s academic or professional aspirations.

3.    Good Practice for Managing Student Requests
3.1   Students will approach members of staff directly for a reference and it is recognised that the
      majority of requests will be handled in this way, with dialogue covering the student’s
      vocational or academic aspirations and the suitability and context of a reference that the
      member of staff can – or cannot – provide. However, there are some procedures that have
      been devised within individual departments to manage the workflow where students interact
      with the departmental office to make their request. They are provided here as examples of
      good practice.
      (a) Where the departmental office prefers to receive student reference requests routinely, the
          use of a proforma can streamline communication, gathering the student’s details, the
          name of the staff member they are seeking a reference from, the purpose and destination
          of the reference and the timescale within it which it is required. The proforma may be
          provided and submitted online.
      (b) Departing students may be invited to lodge brief, CV style information with the
          department, in order to facilitate references being worked up at a later date. It may be of
          benefit to implement an online form for students to complete and submit, within the
          department’s intranet pages.

4.    Information for Students and Staff
4.1   Departmental Student Handbooks should include:
      (a) Advice to students on the members of the department from whom it is most appropriate to
          request a reference and who will be best equipped to evidence the student’s character and
          performance in the subject.. For example, final year project supervisors, year organisers,
          core module supervisors etc are likely to be more suitable than lecturers that have taught
          the student on a first year option module.
      (b) A statement of the timescale for the provision of references, plus an outline of the
          services that the department will provide from three years (or ten years for research
          students) following departure from the University, if appropriate.
      (c) The length of time that copy of a reference will be retained within the Department,
          including confirmation, if necessary, that students will be advised where references are to
          be retained for longer than three years (ten years for research students).
4.2   Departmental Staff Handbooks should include the “Staff Guide to Writing References” at
      Section B of these Procedures;
4.3   Departmental induction for new staff should cover the topic of providing references for


1    Introduction
     Under the Data Protection Act 1998 (the DPA), references are within the definition of
     personal data. The DPA provides individuals (known as “data subjects”) with a general right
     of access (known as “subject access requests”) to personal information held about them by the
     University. This guide contains practical advice for staff, which, if followed accurately, will
     enable staff to be confident that they are protecting the interests of both the University, as a
     data controller, and the student or graduate, as a data subject.

2.   Disclosure of References
     The DPA does allow for confidential references “given by the data controller” to be exempt
     from subject access requests. However, once a reference has been passed to a potential
     employer or training provider, its status is changed. It is now considered to be a “reference
     received” and may not necessarily be exempt from disclosure to the data subject. Although
     there are provisions to prevent its disclosure at this stage, the Act is ambiguous in parts and the
     most sensible interpretation of the legislation currently is to assume that a reference could be
     disclosed to the subject if he/she pursues it vigorously.
      Assume that a reference will be available to the subject at a future date. Read the guidance
       under section 3 carefully.
      If the opportunity exists, you may wish to discuss the reference with the student in order
       that s/he is aware of its content.

3.   Expressing Opinions and Ensuring Accuracy
     The fourth principle of the DPA states that “personal data shall be accurate and, where
     necessary, kept up to date”. The implication is that any references given by University staff
     must be factually correct and justifiable. The potential for a reference to be disclosed to the
     subject does not preclude staff from expressing opinions in references; opinions on an
     individual’s performance and suitability for a particular post or programme of study are an
     important aspect of references. To ensure legality, however, you must always be able to back
     up what you write and distinguish fact from opinion. You should be aware that completion of
     a tick box reference constitutes disclosure. These are commonly found in electronic format,
     see item 7 for more details.
      Introduce the reference by stating the parameters within which it is given.
      Do not confuse fact and opinion. For example when referring to a student’s expected
       honours classification or other level of performance, that would be an opinion whereas
       existing marks and achievement are facts.
      When expressing opinions, draw upon your experiences of working with or assessing the
       student, so that you feel confident in justifying your opinions on reasonable grounds, for
       example by making comparison with other students at a relevant stage of study.
      Do not make statements that you could not justify. For example, draw the reader’s attention
       to qualities that are relevant and which you feel would make the student well suited, or not,
       to the post or study programme in question, rather than stating unequivocally whether s/he
       would be a success in the role, or not.
      Do not provide facts or express opinions where you are not qualified to do so. If you do not
       possess the necessary knowledge about certain aspects of a student’s achievements or
       character, then do not feel pressured into commenting, despite what the organisation
       seeking the reference might be asking for.

4.   Acting in a Professional or Personal Capacity
     In data protection terms, the University is a “data controller” and a reference is data which has
     been given by the organisation. This is not to imply that you are forming a corporate opinion
     when writing a reference, but for the provision of a reference where you are expressing your
     knowledge of the student arising from your employment and contractual obligations to teach
     or supervise him or her, you are clearly acting in a professional capacity and are generating a
     reference on behalf of the University.
     It is quite feasible for staff and students to become acquainted in a social context, for example
     through a sports club, and for you to provide opinion based on an individual’s social or
     personal qualities gained wholly outside of a teaching or supervisory relationship and not
     arising from your contractual obligations. An example might be where a student seeks a
     character reference for a potential landlord. Staff may, of course, be in a position to act in both
     capacities in respect of an individual.
      Preface references given in a purely personal capacity with a sentence to outline the context
       in which you are acquainted with a student.
      Consider carefully whether it is appropriate to use University letter paper when writing a
       reference in a wholly personal capacity.

5.   Refusing a Reference Request
     The University expects staff to provide a reference where possible, but there will always be
     circumstances - beyond logistical difficulties - where a member of staff feels unable to act in
     this capacity.
      The Lancaster Data Protection Project, funded by HEFCE, has provided guidance on the
       issue of student references. Their advice to the HE sector is to “communicate a refusal
       carefully, without, in effect, implying a negative reference and thus disclosing personal
      In practice, when refusing to provide a reference to an individual student, you may wish to
       explain your reasons to the student, for example that they have not made a sufficient
       contribution in lectures or classes to enable you to make judgements about their suitability
       for potential employment or further study opportunities. You may advise them to request a
       reference from a member of staff who has had more contact with them.
      When explaining your refusal to provide a reference to an employer, it would be
       constructive to provide some factual information about the student’s attendance and
       performance, prefacing it with a comment that you have insufficient contact with the
       student, or experience of his/her work, to make more balanced, objective judgements.
      Item 8 deals with the disclosure of “Sensitive Personal Data” in a reference. If you feel
       uncomfortable revealing “sensitive” information about a student in a reference, for
       example, knowledge you may have of any health problems, you can either approach the
       student in question to discuss it, reserve the right not to answer questions on certain topics,
       or refuse the reference request as above.

6.   Telephone and Oral Reference Requests
      It is recommended that telephone or oral references are not routinely given. They would be
       acceptable, however, where the student has requested specifically that a reference is needed
       at short notice.
      Where possible, you should offer and provide a written reference to confirm what was
       communicated orally. These should then be treated as any other written reference.
      The identity of the person requesting the oral reference should always be confirmed prior to
       going ahead. As a minimum security measure, it is recommended to call the enquirer back.
      You reserve the right not to answer certain questions. These could relate to, for example,
       what is termed in the DPA as “sensitive personal data” (see below).

7.   Electronic References
     There is no difference in the status of references provided electronically or in hard copy. The
     number of references processed electronically is believed to be on the increase, especially
     where overseas educational institutions are involved as it can facilitate and accelerate the
     receipt of information to support an application for further study. It is common practice for
     the organisation requesting the reference to email you directly, citing the student’s name and
     requesting you to visit a web page and enter a supplied username and/or password in order to
     access an online form.
      As with all electronic communications, be vigilant to the use of false host email accounts
       and refer to the URL of the host organisation to verify identity if you have cause to be
       suspicious. For example, you may refer to published contact information within the
       organisation’s homepage.
      It is good practice to verify with the student, if possible, that s/he has cited your name as a
       referee to the organisation concerned, if you are not already aware of this.
      Print a copy of the reference or form before submitting the material.
      Completing a check box constitutes disclosure of ‘sensitive personal data’, even if a Yes or
       No response is all that is required. See section 8 for details of ‘sensitive personal data’.

8.   Sensitive Personal Data
     The DPA provides a separate definition of what is termed “sensitive personal data”. This
     relates to information concerning a subject’s:
     a)   racial or ethnic origin,
     b)   political opinions,
     c)   religious beliefs,
     d)   Trades Union activities,
     e)   physical or mental health,
     f)   sexual life,
     g)   details of criminal offences.
     While it is not a legal requirement to gain consent from a student to disclose “sensitive”
     information, it is important that that they are aware that it is happening, even if they know you
     are providing a reference. It may arise that a member of staff is aware of a characteristic of an
     individual student which constitutes “sensitive personal data” and s/he feels is relevant to the
     reference. The best course of action is to discuss the issue directly with the student. If the
     member of staff feels uncomfortable asking the student directly whether the matter may be
     covered in the reference, it would be sensible to contact a member of the University’s
     administrative and professional staff, such as the Disability Team in the Student Support
     Office, for advice on how or whether to raise it with the student. If this does not solve the
     problem, you can either reserve the right not to answer questions on certain topics, or refuse
     the reference request (see item 5).
      The Act provides a separate definition for “sensitive personal data”. Consider the
       implications of this definition when providing a reference. Where references require you to
       answer questions relating to sensitive data, for example, sickness or mental health
       problems, ensure the individual is aware the information is likely to be disclosed as part of
       the reference
      Staff may wish to discuss any individual cases with their Head of Department or approach
       relevant expertise within the University’s administration for advice, such as the Disability
       Team in the Student Support Office or the University Records Manager on data protection

9.   Issuing the Reference
     It is important that a copy of any reference issued is accessible, in case it is required under a
     data subject access request or other legal proceedings. The time period for retaining copies of
     references is three years after they have been provided (ten years for research students).
      Log the fact that you have supplied a reference for a student/students with the departmental
      Retain a copy of the reference and any original correspondence yourself, or pass the items
       to the departmental office for retention, in accordance with the administrative procedures
       within your department or centre.
      Copies must be destroyed three years (ten years for research students) after the reference
       was provided. If you require a copy to be retained for longer than the specified retention
       period, the student must be made aware.
Writing a Reference? A Quick Summary of Dos and Don’ts

    You should assume that the subject will be able to access it at a later date.
    For a solely personal character reference, rather than attesting to the candidate’s academic
     performance or suitability for education or employment, make the context of the reference
     clear. Consider whether University letter paper is appropriate and state the context in which
     you are acquainted with the student in the opening paragraph.
    Do not give an oral reference unless specifically requested to do so by the data subject, for
     example in urgent cases. See section 6 for advice.
    If you have to refuse to supply a reference, issue a carefully worded refusal. Do not imply a
     negative reference.
    Do not include factual detail or opinion on the following without the making the data subject
     aware (See section 8 for advice):
     o racial or ethnic origin,
     o political opinions,
     o religious beliefs,
     o Trade Union activities,
     o physical or mental health,
     o sexual life,
     o details of criminal offences.
    Organise any copies of references that you keep in person so that they can be located and
     destroyed three years after being provided (ten years for research students).

To top