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[Important data protection stuff]

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Contact with third parties - guidance to staff

Background

Staff throughout the University regularly deal with contacts from third parties such as parents, guardians, partners and sponsors of students. The reasons for such contacts are varied - requesting or divulging information or advocating or complaining on behalf of a student are typical.

Staff may be unsure how to respond to such contacts. Through a genuine desire to help, particularly in the case of anxious/concerned parents, staff can find themselves caught up in complex family relationships, or inappropriately mediating between parent and student. Additionally, staff may unwittingly breach the University's duties under the Data Protection Act 1998.

It is hoped that this guidance will give staff confidence in responding to third party contacts, and ensure a reasonably consistent approach to such contacts throughout the University.

This document should be read in conjunction with the Policy on Contact with Third Parties and existing guidance on data protection and third party requests which includes specific tips on handling enquiries from police, immigration authorities and reference requests.

Whilst general guidance is set out below to help staff to respond appropriately to third party contacts, it will not cater for every eventuality. Exceptional situations will sometimes demand a different approach. The following can be contacted for advice:

  • Gemma Aitchison, Information Manager
  • Sonia Virdee, Deputy Secretary
  • Rachel Fletcher, Director of Student Support

General guidance and principles

Do try to

  • Keep calm
  • Listen
  • Be positive and honest
  • Explain
  • Talk on behalf of the institution
  • Establish if the student knows
  • Get the student directly involved
  • Keep detailed notes

Don't

  • Feel pressurised into giving an instant answer
  • Divulge confidential information- including whether the subject of the enquiry is a student.
  • Take sides
  • Get angry
  • Break down
  • Take criticism personally- emotions may be high, the period of transition at University can be difficult for parents to cope with
  • Blame colleagues or administrative processes
  • Make promises you can't keep or for other people
  • Get involved in issues beyond the scope of your role or service- refer on if necessary
  • Keep confidences on behalf of third party – third party contacts should always be noted on students' files.

It is good practice and acceptable to

  • Ask third-party to encourage the student to contact the University direct
  • Suggest other ways the third party can help the student
  • Check the identity of the third party- eg ask for contact details, check MIS and ring back
  • Direct all correspondence to the student
  • Note problem, make enquiries and get back to them (preferably in general terms or after checking student consent)
  • Receive information (eg verbal notification of absence) but not give it out
  • Talk in general terms and refer to published documents and procedures
  • Set time scales and keep to them
  • Share with colleagues
  • Ask for help- including taking time to recharge after a difficult encounter
  • Refuse to be insulted when trying to help
  • Notify Student Support or (Information Centre out of office hours) where there are immediate concerns about a student's welfare

It may be helpful to explain the reasons for our policy and the importance we place on encouraging students to manage their own affairs.

Breaches of confidentiality

Where a breach of confidentiality is considered necessary this must be discussed with relevant senior staff and reasons for the decision recorded. If possible it would also be discussed and agreed with the student1 . Where a student is under 18 and there is a child protection concern then confidentiality cannot be offered. Advice should be sought from a Designated Safeguarding Officer.

Some typical examples

Seeking contact with a student

You receive a telephone call from a man who says his daughter is a student at the University and that he has mislaid her address but needs to get in touch with her. He is able to provide her full name and date of birth and this matches information held for a current student on MIS.

Recommended response

Establish, if possible, the reason for the contact. Do not routinely confirm even whether or not the student is at the University, let alone any of the personal details we hold. Explain that UK data protection law prevents us from passing on information direct to a third party and that the University has policy on how third party contact are handled.

Take the caller's details including contact details and offer to pass this on to the student - IF they are registered here. Don't offer/ promise/ agree to call back.

As the student is on MIS contact the student direct passing on the message from the man (as he might not even be her father), make a note on the student's file.

If the reason for contact appears urgent or serious - eg the illness or death of a family member, seek advice during office hours from Student Support and out of office hours from Patrol Staff (who can contact the on call Resident's Support Network) as support may need to be offered to the student.

Bear in mind, however plausible the caller may be, students may be estranged from parents and not wish them to know that they are studying here. If the daughter did not appear on MIS you should not confirm this either.

Missing student

You receive a telephone call from the mother of a student to say that she has not heard from her son for over a week and that this is very out of character as he normally texts her every night. He isn't answering his mobile phone and she's seriously worried.

Recommended response

Gather information about student and parent, say that you will check to see if the student is here and if so will try to get a message to him to contact mum. Don't offer to call back – if she asks you to explain that this won't be possible. If she remains concerned she can report him as missing to the police - at which point the University would be able to release more information (to the police) if it is held.

Check details held on MIS. It may be worth checking with academic department whether the student has been attending classes etc. Send message to the student by email and/or telephone. If the student lives in University accommodation a visit from the Resident's Support Network can be arranged - contact Student Support to arrange this (or Patrol Officers out of hours). Make a note on the student's file.

If there is immediate cause for concern (eg that the student may have harmed themselves), contact Patrol staff and Student Support.

Remember most callers about ‘missing students' have an innocent explanation, but occasionally concern may be well founded and the student could be genuinely missing or in need of assistance. Always follow up and seek advice from Student Support and/or involve Patrol Staff if you are worried.

Personal Caller

A man claiming to be the uncle of student turns up at your office, he tells you he had arranged to meet his nephew in a coffee bar on campus today but he hasn't turned up, could you let him know where the student lives (or perhaps accompany him to his room)?

Recommended response

Take details from the man (as with the “father” above – people aren't necessarily who they say they are) including his details and the student's. Say you will look in to it and ask him to come back in an agreed time (half hour say). Then follow steps above to check student's details and try to make contact – but not while the visitor is still with you.

If contact is made with the student, ask for permission to tell his uncle that you have spoken to him. When uncle returns unless you have student's consent don't confirm any details. Make a note on the student's file. If concerned about attitude of uncle, consider involving manager or patrol staff. It can be difficult to turn people away if they have travelled to be here but it's very important to follow the guidance and not be drawn into sharing information.

University of Essex
Governance Office
May 2009

1Provisions of related policies including the Mental Health Crisis Intervention policy or the Under 18's and Vulnerable Adults policy may also need to be considered.

Further information: