Confidential student data less protected

05-11-2009

Students who visit the study advisor to talk about personal problems, want the report of their talk to remain confidential and inaccessible for others. That was the case, until now. But since the implementation of the new automation system MUSL, such data can now also be accessed - and even changed - from other faculties.

Protests by the study advisors themselves have been in vain, say people like Guido Tans (Medicine), Robert Pans (Economics and Business Administration) and Oscar van den Wijngaard, (University College). The UM took the decision to set MUSL up in such a way that, in principle, student data can be accessed by all members of staff who fulfil a certain role, so across the UM (with a few exceptions). There are no longer any ‘partition walls’ between the faculties. This means that exam results can be viewed by all staff members concerned: from Psychology to Law or Economics and vice versa. Marc Arts, MUSL project leader: “This principle also applies to the study advisors. They can all look into each other’s files.”

The advisors themselves are far from happy with this. Oscar van den Wijngaard, chairman of SUMA, the UM platform for all student guides, from advisors to counsellors and deans: “It started off with there being no facility within the MUSL system for study councillors, they had forgotten to include that. This was subsequently built into the system. The data belonging to student deans and counsellors is protected, but that is because they form separate groups within Student Services. The advisory work, on the other hand, is organised at faculty level. This seemed to us like a train that could not be stopped.”

The basic principle for the study advisors was always that the privacy of students must be guaranteed. Until now, the rule was that only the student concerned and the study advisor who wrote a report of the meeting, had access to the file. In emergencies, immediate colleagues of advisors could also access the data. All in all, the group was kept as small as possible, says Guido Tans, task group leader for study advice at Medicine, and “fundamentally different” from a situation in which third parties “with whom the student has no confidential relationship”, also have access to electronic records. Last November, Tans wrote an urgent letter of protest to the head of his faculty, but even that could not change the UM decision. The same goes for the Faculty of Law, says director Marlies van Dongen: “We tried too.”  

In the meantime, the national association of study advisors - LVSA - has looked into the UM policy, reports Robert Pans, head of the study advisors at Economics and recently appointed as a board member of LVSA. Pans: “The LVSA believes that this is contrary to the national code of conduct.” This (non-binding) code states that study advisors should observe confidentiality and should be able to manage records in such a way that confidentiality is “guaranteed”. The UM's legal department concluded that the UM policy is indeed at odds with this code of conduct, but claimed that there was no real conflict with privacy laws, said Pans and Van den Wijngaard.

After the introduction of the system this academic year, the study advisors are facing the consequences. Van den Wijngaard: “You will see that they no longer include everything in the system.” Heleen Vliex, study advisor at Law, confirms this: “We only enter general data, not the reports of meetings. We feel that this would be unfair to the students.” She also confirmed that it was possible to tamper with the files from other faculties. MUSL project leader Arts’s defence was: “That is true, but one can always trace by whom and when something was changed.” In answer to the question whether the situation could be reversed, he said: “It is always possible, but how much this would cost, I don’t know. One would first have to build into the system the technology that allows partitions to be created and then actually put the partitions in place. But it would be up to the directors or the Executive Board to give the orders.”

 

Wammes Bos

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