Providing references

  • This section offers practical advice and guidance for Academic Advisers on providing references for present or past students, for both employment and further study.

    The University has an overarching procedure for the Preparation of Student References.

    Guidance notes

    You must ensure that when providing references for students you meet the procedures set out in the Preparation of Student References. Here we give informal guidance on providing references for students in your capacity as Academic Adviser. It does not cover references for fellow members of staff (where other considerations apply), nor references offered in a private capacity (although the legal situation may be similar).

    The following guidance outlines good practice. If you comply with the Procedures and this informal guidance, it should protect you, and the University, from legal action.

    1. Written references The principal aims of providing a written reference are: (a) to confirm facts and (b) to provide relevant opinion.

      Therefore:

      • Ensure that the reference is factually accurate and complete. You are strongly advised to check out any information held on the student, centrally or in the Faculty.
      • Clearly differentiate statements of fact and opinion. ('On performance to date, she is likely to get a first class degree' is opinion, rather than 'she will get a first class degree' which might be construed as a fact.)
      • Only express opinions that are relevant, and that you are competent to give. ('I believe that X is well-suited to the post', is appropriate, whereas, 'X will be a great success in the post' is not.)
      • Try to be fair, bearing in mind the duty of care owed to both the student and the recipient of the reference.
      • Avoid ambiguous or coded language. If your knowledge of the student leads you to a definite opinion, then express it. However, less definite feelings (negative or positive) should not be aired, or hinted at.
    2. Telephone references You are advised not to give references over the phone because they are easily misheard, mis-transcribed or misinterpreted. Where absolutely unavoidable, you may provide a statement which is limited to the facts, which should be followed up immediately in writing (eg email).
    3. Unsolicited references Where the student has not, to your knowledge, cited you as a referee, pass the request on to Student Central for confirmation of the public facts.
    4. Who should (and should not) provide references? Students are asked to nominate a referee when they leave the University, so the information is held centrally. The most appropriate referee for a student is either the current or ex-Academic Adviser, or a tutor nominated by the student who has been substantially involved in teaching that student.

      Other tutors, who are not Heads of Department (or equivalent) and who did not have substantial academic contact with the student, should only provide references on behalf of the University (as opposed to privately) if they taught or supervised the student on a specific topic which is directly relevant to the reference request. 
    5. Confidentiality Guidelines for respecting confidentiality in relation to references for students are being developed. See Confidentiality and Data Protection for general principles concerning confidentiality
    6. Difficult cases You may be unsure what to say in the case where you have been asked to write a reference for a student who you know is (or was) in bad standing with the University (e.g. for disciplinary or financial reasons). The general guidance is not to mention such matters unless you believe it to be directly relevant to the duty of care that you owe to the recipient of the reference (ie. relevant to the job, course, etc. that the student has applied to). If the job or course assumes a high level of responsibility and/or personal integrity, then it may be appropriate to refer to the student's poor standing. However, before doing so you are advised to discuss the matter with the Data Protection Officer, as disclosure of such information where it is not warranted must also be avoided, as part of an Academic Adviser's duty of care to the student.

      Where you are uncomfortable about providing a reference, or have significant reservations about what you can say, you are free to tell the student that you do not wish to be a referee. You must, however, be clear and transparent about your reasons for refusing.

    Checklist and sample references

    Generally, employers are interested in a range of qualities over and above a good degree. They want to know about a candidate's motivation, personality, interests and skills such as communication, reliability, creativity and teamwork. Overall, they seek candidates who are technically competent, numerate, active social individuals who are good communicators and have the potential to take more responsibility in the future.

    For academic references, it is more important to emphasise the individual's ability to research and analyse, and to point to their good performance in previous academic study. It is helpful to include how the course of study will benefit their future career plans.

    For all references, it is helpful to know something in advance about the job/course the individual is applying for, and to draw on your own experiences in recruiting others for work or as potential postgraduate students.

    The following simple checklist may be helpful in structuring a reference:

    • Academic record
    • Expected class of degree
    • Attitude to study and research
    • Involvement in extra-curricular activities / interests
    • Work experience
    • Skills/motivation:
      • communication
      • teamwork
      • numeracy
    • Other relevant skills
    • Relationships with others
    • Career interests

    Example references

    Below are simple references illustrating the ways in which the boxed outline above can be adapted.