Planning, Governance and Compliance

Writing references for students

This guidance concerns references written on behalf of students by members of staff, acting in their capacity as employees of the University. It does not cover references for fellow members of staff (where other considerations apply), or references written in a private capacity (although the legal situation may be similar).

It has always been clear that we owe a general duty of care in preparing references for students. However, court rulings now make clear that this duty has a specific legal dimension, and that a referee may be liable for damages to the subject of a reference if loss is caused to that person through negligence. Such liability may come about through carelessness on matters of fact or opinion. The following guidance outlines good practice. If followed, it should also protect you and the University from legal action.

  1. The principal aims of providing a reference are: (a) to confirm facts (e.g. to confirm the accuracy of the statements made in an application), and (b) to provide relevant opinion (e.g. to give an opinion as to the candidate's suitability for a post, a further programme of study, or general potential). Therefore:
    1. Ensure that the reference is factually accurate and complete. You are strongly advised to request, as appropriate, the current School file or the archived file from the Student Systems Office and to check your facts.
    2. Clearly differentiate statements of fact and opinion. ('On performance to date, she is likely to get a first class degree' is opinion, but 'she will get a first class degree' might be construed factually.)
    3. 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 probably not.)
    4. Try to be fair, bearing in mind the duty of care owed to both the subject and the recipient of the reference.
    5. Avoid ambiguous or coded language. If your knowledge of the candidate leads you to a definite opinion, then express it. However, less definite feelings (negative or positive) should not be aired, or hinted at.
    6. Place a copy of the reference you write on the central record. For current students, this means the School file; for ex-students send it to the Student Systems Office, Sussex House to be archived.
  2. Telephone References. Resist such requests other than in exceptional circumstances. Oral references are easily mis-heard, mis-transcribed or misinterpreted. Also, a reference usually merits more consideration than a telephone conversation allows. Where absolutely unavoidable (and only then in the candidate's interest), you may provide a statement which is limited to the facts, which should be followed up immediately in writing (e.g. email or fax).
  3. Unsolicited References (i.e. where the subject has not, to your knowledge, cited you as a referee). Resist such requests. Refer the enquirer to the Student Systems Office.
  4. Requests where a job has been offered 'subject to references'. Such requests can cause irritation and confusion. In general, interpret them as seeking to verify facts about the candidate - rather than as seeking opinion regarding suitability or potential. Whilst gauging your response according to the interest of the student concerned, you should normally decline to provide opinion in such cases, as a matter of University policy.
  5. Who should (and should not) provide references? The most appropriate referee for a student is either the current/ex-personal tutor, or a tutor nominated by the student who has been substantially involved in teaching that student. (Students are asked to nominate a referee when they leave the University.) Failing this, the relevant Director should produce the reference. Where this means that the person writing the reference did not have substantial contact with the student, then the reference should be limited to matters of fact, or opinion that is directly supported by material on file. Other tutors, who are not Directors 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.
  6. As a matter of general data confidentiality, the Student Systems Office is instructed not to provide archive files on past students to members of staff, where the academic connection with the student is unclear. School offices which hold the files of current students should observe the same policy.
  7. Requests for references for past students addressed merely to 'the University' are vetted by the Student Systems Office. Where a purely factual response is appropriate, it is provided directly. Otherwise, the request will be passed to the most appropriate member of academic faculty (as set out above).
  8. 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 a matter unless you believe it to be directly relevant to the duty of care that you owe to the recipient of the reference (i.e. relevant to the job, course, etc. the student has applied for). 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 our duty of care to the student.
  9. Challenges and Liability. If you are challenged over a reference you have given, do not admit liability, and refer the matter immediately to the Academic Secretary.