Universities should not hesitate to share sensitive student data in an emergency due to data protection fears, the Information Commissioner’s Office has said.
Ahead of the start of a new academic year, the ICO reminded universities of their responsibility to student welfare and data privacy.
The non-departmental government body – assigned authority to uphold information rights in the public interest – said universities were responsible for handling vast amounts of students’ sensitive personal data but warned them to waive concerns if student welfare is at risk.
The announcement signposts universities to the ICO data sharing code of practice. A statement from Viv Adams, principal policy adviser in the ICO parliament and government affairs team, said they hoped the guidance “will go some way towards it by busting data sharing myths.
Said Adams: “Put simply, university staff should do whatever is necessary and proportionate to protect someone’s life. Data protection law allows organisations to share personal data in an urgent or emergency situation, including to help them prevent loss of life or serious physical, emotional or mental harm.”
Adams reassured universities the ICO would not penalise an organisation “acting in good faith and in the public interest in an urgent or emergency situation”.
The ICO encouraged universities to develop emergency plans on data sharing in a crisis: staff should consider what data they hold that they could share in an emergency and how and with whom they could share it. As part of this, universities must develop data-sharing agreements with health and wellbeing organisations to facilitate regular and routine information sharing and offer detailed staff training, the ICO recommends.
The Student Academic Experience Survey 2019 found that two-thirds of students agree universities should contact parents if they are deeply worried about a student’s mental state.
The Office for Students recently released updated information and guidance for universities on suicide prevention.