Academic Tutors are frequently asked to provide references for current and past students in response to enquiries by prospective employers and by institutions offering postgraduate courses.

These guidelines should be followed if you have been asked to provide a reference about a current or past student.

Who should supply a reference?

Students are advised that they should in the first instance ask their Academic Tutor to be their referee, but if they feel it would be more appropriate, they can ask their Dissertation or Project Supervisor. Students should ask for permission before giving the name of a member of staff as a referee.

There is no legal obligation to provide a reference but it is established practice at the University and part of the role of an Academic Tutor to provide academic references for tutees.  Any refusal to supply a reference should only be made with good reason and should not in any circumstance be based on any ground that may be discriminatory.

Writing a reference for a student you do not know well

If you have been asked to supply a reference but do not know the student very well (for example if they have not attended any scheduled Academic Tutorial meetings), you should explore with the student whether there is a more appropriate person who can give the reference.  If not, it would be good to talk to them first and find out a little more about why they are interested in the opportunity. You can also find out anything else they would like you to mention such as volunteering, part time-work and role in a club or society. The reference should be limited to matters of fact or opinion that are directly supported by information on file.

Data Protection

If you are receiving the request for the reference on the basis that the student has elected you as referee you can reasonably assume that they are happy for you to provide one.

You must be mindful that under data protection laws the students have the right to request sight of personal information including references. In some instances information may be protected from disclosure, but please be mindful that a student may see what you have written about them.

Consent

You should not provide any information defined within data protection law as being Sensitive Special Category data without the student’s explicit consent.

This includes any information relating to their health, race, ethnic origin, politics, religion, sex life, and sexual orientation unless the student has given express, written permission for you to do so.

In practice this means that you cannot mention extenuating circumstances, sickness record, disabilities etc unless you have written permission from the student. If you feel that including this in your reference would make it more fair and/or accurate then you must explain your view to the student and get their written consent to include the information.

You should not be asked to, nor provide information about a student’s criminal convictions or offences (even where the student has given consent for you to do so) and should direct the reference requestor to the student direct or through formal CRB routes if applicable

You can confirm dates of study, attainment and attendance (as long as there is evidence to back it up).

Reference writing best practice

The main aim of providing a reference is to:

  • Confirm facts; and
  • To provide relevant and honest opinion.

When providing a reference, you must ensure that the information it contains is true, accurate and fair and does not give a misleading impression. When giving an opinion, you should make it clear that this is your opinion and it should be capable of being demonstrated as a reasonable opinion which you can back up.  Opinions which cannot be substantiated should not be included. For example, statements such as “Student A may have achieved a better grade if they had not had to take a break from their studies for medical reasons” should be avoided.

When writing references it is helpful to bear in mind the following points:

  • Refer to facts and then your own opinion on whether they might be suitable for the opportunity.
  • Use hard evidence (eg. How long you have known them, in what capacity etc)
  • Clearly differentiate statements of facts and opinion.
  • Try to make only positive points, and do not use ambiguous language
  • If a pro-forma is provided, do not try to comment on or feel obliged to answer questions on aspects which you are not in a position to assess, for example disability, political beliefs etc
  • Avoid giving out references over the telephone as you have no control over what the person at the other end of the phone actually writes down
  • If you have grounds to reference sensitive data ensure you have the explicit consent of the student, for example by showing them a copy of what you intend to send and obtaining their (recorded) approval.

If you are asked for an opinion on an issue on which you have limited knowledge, such as the subject’s honesty and integrity, use qualifying phrases such as, ” I know of nothing that would lead me to question X’s……”.

You should also:

  • Mark the reference ‘private and confidential for the addressee only’
  • Keep a copy of the reference in a central secure location within the School or Support Centre, where it can be readily and quickly accessed. References should be retained as per the University retention guidelines (6 years after the end of the student’s relationship with the university).