Appendix A PROCEDURES FOR PROVIDING STUDENT REFERENCES Introduction 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. SECTION A: PRINCIPLES FOR PROVIDING STUDENT REFERENCES 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 period). 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 students. SECTION B: STAFF GUIDE TO WRITING STUDENT REFERENCES GOOD PRACTICE AND COMPLIANCE WITH THE DATA PROTECTION ACT 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. Action 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. Action 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. Action 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. Action 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 data”. 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 Action 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). Action 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 issues. 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). Action Log the fact that you have supplied a reference for a student/students with the departmental office. 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).
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