Edinburgh University officials told staff to leak information on indebted students

Edinburgh University officials have been forced to scrap a plan calling on tutors to leak private information about students who told them about debt problems.

Lecturers were instructed to pass the information of hundreds of students who had fallen behind in their tuition fee payments on to officials.

About 250 students, identifiable by their “customer codes” as well as dates of birth and courses were given to tutors.

However, staff at the Hunter Building raised concerns such a move would fall foul of data protection laws and ruin the pastoral relationship between tutor and student.

The Herald reports that in emails from senior management, staff were told: “We have been asked to gather information on the students listed in the attached document. Could you please search your tutee lists and identify if any of the listed students have particular money/debt issues that we should be aware of. We have been given a very short turnaround time on this and it would be most helpful if you could return your comments by Tuesday February 2.

“To clarify, the request has come from the fees and finance office. We have received a list of students showing as owing monies to the university.

“We have been required to clarify whether we know of any reason why these fees could not have been paid. This will prevent a reminder notice being issued.”

Students were enrolled on courses including education studies, sport science, physical education, sports science medicine, sport and recreation management and community education.

The university said the instruction was “not normally how sensitive information is shared among staff”.

A source said this was simply another example of staff being given “surveillance responsibilities”.

They said: “The finance people have been chasing people for debt, they want data and the students on the list they gave were easily identifiable by the codes, dates of birth and programmes they are studying.

“We are supposed to give academic advice and our pastoral role involves directing students towards help or counselling if their financial situation was impacting on their studies.

“This was asking us to report details of confidential discussions we have with students so they could be pursued for debt. This breaches all sorts of data protection I suspect.”

The student union said students must have confidence in tutors’ impartiality.

Imogen Wilson, Edinburgh University Student Association vice president, said: “There’s clearly been a breakdown in communication and the university must make sure this never happens again.

“Students need to be confident they can approach their personal tutors for impartial support and advice, and they deserve to be able to continue their studies without being harassed about tuition fees.”

An Edinburgh University spokesman said: “The email was sent with the intention of finding out how students could be better supported.

“There has been no breach of data protection law as no names were included and it was sent confidentially to specific members of staff in the School of Education.

“However, this is not normally how sensitive information is shared among staff and more robust guidelines are being put in place.”

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