Staff-student relationships should be strongly discouraged

Universities have a duty to protect students from the power imbalance inherent in a personal relationship with a staff member, says Cara Aitchison

March 2, 2022
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Universities are renowned for pushing the frontiers of scientific discovery and for espousing progressive social values. But the unequal power relations that are a prerequisite for sexual harassment and abuse in wider society are too often reflected in, rather than challenged by, higher education’s organisational culture.

As a woman in higher education, I have sought to listen and respond to students and younger academics as they have come forward over the decades with complaints of sexual misconduct, including against members of staff. Many of us in senior leadership roles, myself included, experienced such misconduct ourselves, either as students or as younger members of staff; we now have both the authority and the responsibility, via our duty of care, to change the culture of higher education so that all students experience university life as safe, inclusive and empowering.

Thanks to the research and advocacy of the National Union of Students and survivor-victim group the 1752 Group, we in UK higher education know that gender, subject and level of study are risk factors when it comes to sexual misconduct by staff members. Women, LGBT+ and postgraduate students are more likely to experience it, especially if they belong to more than one of these groups. We also know that there is significant under-reporting of sexual misconduct and that confusion and uncertainty exists among some staff and students about what is and is not acceptable behaviour.

The first step in the journey to tackle any form of harassment is to acknowledge that the issue exists. It is time we admitted that there is a problem with staff-to-student sexual misconduct in UK universities. By this, I mean all behaviour of a physically or emotionally intimate or sexual nature which, reasonably considered, is inappropriate or unacceptable. Currently, such conduct all too often goes uninvestigated – denied, paid off and passed on.

Universities need to help students report sexual misconduct and to do so in the knowledge that they will be listened to, supported and communicated with throughout any investigation or disciplinary process (which must also, of course, work within employment law to uphold the rights of employees). It is hard enough for a young woman to report an incident of harassment at any time; it is even harder if the person she is reporting is her lecturer, supervisor or course leader.

That is why Universities UK’s new guidance recommends that universities strongly discourage close personal relationships between staff and students. Where these do occur, we recommend that the staff member be removed from all responsibilities that could constitute or be perceived to constitute a conflict of interest. We do not and cannot “ban” consenting adult relationships, and we recognise that it is not a university’s place to judge them. However, it is our duty to protect students from the inherent power imbalance in a staff-student relationship.

In addition to seeking changes to university culture, our guidance also sets out wide-ranging improvements to policies and practices around the reporting of sexual misconduct. We recommend better support for those who speak out, including anonymously, and we ask that records of reports be collected so that we can better understand the scale of the problem and find ways to address it.

Governments in both Westminster and Cardiff have called on all universities in England and Wales to commit not to using Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in sexual harassment cases. Universities Scotland has made the same statement, and universities throughout the UK have responded by making this commitment. At Cardiff Metropolitan University, for instance, we have published a statement on our website making clear we do not and will not use NDAs in such cases.

If we fail to address the issue of staff sexual misconduct, some students will not only have a poor learning experience or feel uncomfortable and even threatened at university. They will also be more likely to drop out of their course, having a negative impact on the rest of their lives.

We must ensure that, with the support of wider society, including the activist groups that have led the way, every campus builds a culture of trust and a sense of belonging, such that students feel listened to and know that their university will act appropriately.

If UUK’s report prompts a short-term increase in reports of staff-to-student misconduct, this should not be seen as a negative development. Indeed, it is likely to be indicative of an important cultural shift towards people being empowered to speak out. This is essential if a university is to respond effectively.

Ultimately, within each university, and collectively as a sector, we must change for good the culture that enables sexual misconduct to happen in the first place.

Cara Aitchison is chair of Universities UK’s sexual misconduct advisory group and vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University.

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