Confidentiality

  • It is University policy not to give out any information about a student without their permission except where the Data Protection Act 1998 allows this to be done. You are advised to consult the University Regulations:

    These policies expand on the Statement particularly in relation to the role and responsibilities of Academic Advisers. 

    Implications of the Data Protection Act 1998

    Any record system organised to allow ready access to information about individuals comes under the Data Protection Act 1998 and the information must be accessible to the student on request. You therefore need to ensure that any information you put on record is recorded in a way that you would feel comfortable about if the student were to read it.

    You may release student personal data to fellow University employees who require that information in order to carry out their normal duties, but you and they should avoid disclosing information about a student to anyone else.

    The DPA defines certain personal information as 'sensitive' and sets out special conditions that must be followed when processing it. 'Sensitive' information is defined as racial/ethnic origins, political opinions, religious beliefs, Trade Union membership, physical or mental health, sexual life, and offences or court proceedings. If you find yourself discussing 'sensitive' matters, consider saying something like:

    'I'd like to keep a note of this if you agree - you're free to have a look at my notes before you go.'

    If you will need to disclose any sensitive information to someone else, you must tell the student who you will pass the information to, and ask them for their written permission for you to do so.

    The Data Protection Act also has implications for your paperwork at a day to day level, requiring that notes are kept 'securely'.  You are therefore advised to keep any electronic records about your advisees in the My Advisees moodle facility. 

    Confidentiality and staff

    The University has a confidentiality policy with guidelines to staff on the use of student data and personal information. Accompanying the policy is a guide on procedures for the preparation of student references.

    Staff in the Counselling and Advisory Services, and in the Brookes Union Advice Centre are bound by professional codes of ethics concerning confidentiality. Counsellors and advisers will not discuss a student without the student's permission.

    Most other members of the University are not bound by such a professional code, but students will assume that conversations with you are private and that they are speaking in confidence. On a day-to-day basis, the breaches of confidence that cause distress to students and inhibit them from speaking openly with you are most likely to arise from casual chatting.

    You need to be clear in your own mind about how you deal with information or concerns that students share with you, and where possible make this clear from the outset. If you need to refer on, or discuss the student's problems with another member of staff, you should explain this to the student and check that they have no objections. If they are anxious about you sharing the information, you may be able to maintain confidentiality by seeking advice as an 'anonymous' enquiry.

    If you are concerned that a student is at serious risk, and need a second opinion urgently, contact the Counselling Service or the Medical Centre.

    In short . . .

    While Academic Advisers are not bound by any professional code of ethics, you should consider that private conversations between yourself and a student should remain private.

    Students will assume that they are speaking to you in confidence.

    You need to be clear in your own mind about how you deal with information or concerns that students share with you, and talk to the student about what they want you to do with the information they have given you.

    If the student is describing circumstances that may be affecting their academic performance you should check explicitly whether the student wishes you to pass the information on to the relevant module leader. Remind the student if they do not wish information to be passed on at this stage, it may or may not be possible for an allowance to be made for it later.

    Confidentiality and email

    Careless emailing

    Think twice before using email for confidential correspondence such as a discussion about a named individual, staff or student. It is easy for your correspondent to forward your email to someone else, click on a distribution list, or to circulate an attachment by accident. All these routine actions carry the risk of embarrassment, distress or breaches of confidentiality.

    Offensive email

    It is important students (and staff) use email in a responsible and courteous way. Occasionally, people do receive email which they find offensive or upsetting. The advice in these circumstances is:

    • keep the email (so that the header may be inspected later)
    • Contact the OBIS Service Desk and report the incident.

    Computer Services staff will investigate and resolve the issue, using the disciplinary process if appropriate.

    Confidentiality and parents

    Advisers/staff can find themselves under considerable pressure from parents to discuss their son/daughter's progress or difficulties. It may be helpful for tutors to explain to parents that they are bound by the University legal framework which includes the Data Protection Act.

    Advisers/staff need to be aware:

    • of general principles of confidentiality (see above). These apply to all adults over 18. Advisers/staff are not free to discuss individual students with a third party, and this includes parents
    • Students are personally liable for the payment of fees. Parents do not have a contractual relationship with the University.

      The most common requests by third parties (including parents) about students are:

      • whether the student is registered at the University
      • where the student can be contacted (eg address, telephone number, email address, location of classes)
      • a student’s support needs
      • details of the student's academic performance/marks.

      Staff may not give these or other personal details to third parties (and this includes parents) without the student's permission except where the Data Protection Act 1998 allows this to be done. The PIP system (Data Protection Settings PIP page) allows students to give the University permission to speak to a nominated person about their academic progress.

      It needs to be borne in mind that apart from issues of confidentiality and the legal constraints on the University, there may be a risk of exposing students to danger or harassment from unwanted contact by others. The legal position on confidentiality is clear and binding. Other universities, however, do not necessarily take the same view. If you are in doubt about what you can say, the Academic Registrar will be happy to offer advice.