Don't tell Mum: academic censured for discussing son's course load

Answer to a mother's query made 'illicit disclosures' of personal data. Melanie Newman reports

May 15, 2008

A senior academic has been reprimanded for making "illicit disclosures" after responding to a parent's complaint about her son's tuition.

Geraint Johnes, head of the economics department at Lancaster University, was told that he had breached data protection rules by providing information about a student, Christian Gardner, to his mother, Jackie, and would face disciplinary action for any future breaches.

Ms Gardner wrote to the university in April to complain that her son, a first-year economics student, was receiving insufficient tuition.

She wrote: "I, very wrongly it seems, assumed that he would be fully engaged ... he is now quite addicted to alcohol, smokes and has spent a great deal of time over the last nine months asleep." She went on to complain that her son had reported that he was receiving only three hours of lectures a week.

Professor Johnes replied immediately. He listed Mr Gardner's modules and explained that Mr Gardner had at least four hours' weekly contact time plus regular project meetings. Professor Johnes also discussed an incentive scheme in one of Mr Gardner's modules that allows students who gain 55 per cent in course work to be exempted from a final-year exam.

When Mr Gardner became aware of the exchange, he complained to the university that it had released the information without his consent.

Andrew Okey, Lancaster's data protection officer, confirmed that there had been a breach of the university's data protection procedures. He wrote to Professor Johnes saying: "Given the seriousness of the accusations raised by Mr Gardner's mother, I do accept that you felt you had to respond to her in some way. However faced with this requirement you should have: i) gained Mr Gardner's explicit consent to disclose his details to Mrs Gardner; or ii) answered Mrs Gardner's concerns only in generic terms."

Mr Okey warned Professor Johnes that any further "illicit disclosures" would be reported to the human resources department for disciplinary action. "I shall also ask the academic registrar to withdraw your department's rights to electronic access to centrally maintained student records," he said.

Mr Gardner told Times Higher Education: "I had spoken to the head of my college earlier about data protection and had been advised that the university could not confirm whether individuals were members of the university.

"(Other) parents had telephoned and had been told the university could not say whether a student was alive or dead. So I was very surprised that a full list of my courses was disclosed to my mother without contacting me first."

Rosemary Jay, head of the information law team at law firm Pinsent Masons, said that although the list of modules attended by Mr Gardner was personal data, revealing it was not a serious breach of his personal autonomy. "The academic may have assumed that the student knew about the letter and had given implied consent to a reply," she said.

The Data Protection Act is more about managing information properly than dictating what can and cannot be disclosed, she added. A university may tell parents about their children's attendance, for example, as long as it has advised students it will make such limited disclosures unless they object.

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