Privacy and Ethics Issues

Privacy and Personal Data Protection

In the academic advising process, an academic adviser is given access to or provided with various types of personal data about the advisees. It is important for an academic adviser, under ethical, professional and legal obligations, to respect and protect the privacy and personal data of the advisees. In particular, an academic adviser should pay attention to the requirements of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance (Ordinance), including the six data protection principles which govern, among others, the collection, use, disclosure, security and access of personal data.

The general requirement is that personal data should only be used and disclosed with the prescribed consent of the data subject, or for the purpose (or a directly related purpose) for which the data has been collected.

Every student upon admission is informed (via the Student Record Form (login required) of the Personal Information Collection Statement (login required)) that his / her personal data may be used by the University for academic and administrative purposes. In this respect, it is necessary to consider carefully whether any use or disclosure of personal data falls within the purposes or other directly related purposes. In case of doubt, prescribed consent of the data subject should be obtained.

The Ordinance has provided for certain exemptions on such grounds as prevention of crime, unlawful or seriously improper conduct, and protection of physical or mental health.

As to practical issues, academic advisers should note and observe:

  1. Always seek students’ consent before you disclose their academic and/or personal information to other people;
  2. After each advising meeting, keep brief but concise notes, including, if any, the record of consent sought and given in respect of information disclosure;
  3. Notes of meeting, comments, file remarks and other records should be an accurate and fit-for-purpose summary of the process, facts, advice and discussions;
  4. Bear in mind that personal data (which includes an expression of opinion as defined by the Ordinance) contained in meeting notes / comment is subject to statutory data access request made pursuant to the Ordinance (i.e. students can request for accessing their personal data which are under the control of the University), and therefore avoid putting emotional commentaries or opinions down in the meeting notes / comment; and
  5. If an advisee has personal / emotional issues that warrant a referral to counsellor in CEDARS, advise the student that he / she should make an appointment with the CEDARS counsellor directly and quickly.

Advisers are strongly recommended to review following resources for more detailed information regarding privacy and personal data protection:

If you have further queries regarding privacy and personal data protection issues in academic advising, please contact the University Data Protection Officer whose contact details are:

Telephone: 2857 8277
Email: privacy@hku.hk

In the course of advising students, Academic Advisers often have to make decision on whether they should take some actions or give out some advice which is controversial. For example,

  1. If an academically weak student tells his / her Adviser that he / she wish to take a course taught by a professor whom the Adviser knows to be very critical and demanding, should the Adviser disclose his / her view about the Professor to the student?
  2. If a final year student, at the middle of his / her last semester, discovers that he / she has not taken a core course of the graduation requirements, which his / her Adviser deems very important academically and should not be missed, should the Adviser tell the student that he / she can apply for an exception from the Faculty Dean (whom the Adviser knows would very likely grant the exception to the student)?
  3. If a student discloses to his / her Adviser that some information he / she submitted in his / her admission application was misleading, should the Adviser turn the student in?

There are, of course, no standard answers to these questions. Advisers must exercise their own judgment. However, Adviser may wish to take reference to the following ethical principles for academic advising proposed by Marc Lowenstein (2008), which may provide good guidance for decision.

Ethical principles for academic advising

1. Seek to enhance the student's learning whenever possible

2. Treat students equitably

3. Enhance the students' ability to make autonomous decisions

4. Advocate for the student

5. Tell the truth

6. Respect the confidentiality of communication with the student

7. Support the institution's educational philosophy and policies

8. Maintain the credibility of the advising programme

9. Accord colleagues appropriate professional courtesy and respect

It is worth noting that in reality, these ethical principles can conflict with each other. For example, in the situations described, if an Adviser does not inform the student his / her view, it may be a failure to tell the truth (Principle 5), but to inform the student his / her view may contradict with Principle 9. The conflict of principles, or ethical dilemma, is not uncommon and comes with the nature of the work.

Strategies for Handling Ethical Dilemma

In facing ethical dilemma, Marc Lowenstein (2008) suggested three possible strategies:

  1. When confronted with conflicting principles, do the best you can to follow all of them to the extent possible.
  2. Compare the situation to similar, real or hypothetical, situations to see whether any element in it is crucial to evaluating it.
  3. In considering two solutions, each of which would violate an ethical principle, try to identify the choice that leads to a less substantial violation.

These strategies may not always yield satisfactory resolutions for all ethical dilemmas, but it often can provide assistance for Advisers to consider what is the action that he / she should take.

References:

  • Marc Lowenstein (2008). “Ethical Foundations of Academic Advising” in Chapter Three of “Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook”, second edition, ed. Virginia N. Gordon, Wesley R. Habley, Thomas J. Grites, and Associates. (copyright by National Academic Advising Association, 2008 and published by Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint), p.40-47.