Relationships register or full ban is ‘catch-22’ for universities

OfS’ proposed scheme might unintentionally endorse personal relationships between staff and students, campaigners warn

二月 28, 2023
Couple behind garage shutters to illustrate Relationships register or full ban is ‘catch-22’ for universities
Source: Getty

An outright ban on staff-student sexual relationships in England would help to avoid some of the “grey areas and ambiguities” that might arise from the Office for Students’ proposed registration scheme, according to campaigners.

But it has been warned that a more hard-line approach to eradicating sexual misconduct on campuses could also drive such relationships underground and put students in a more vulnerable position if they do not have access to support.

The OfS, England’s sector regulator, is consulting on plans to force all university staff to declare “personal relationships” with students for whom they have responsibility, details of which should be kept on a register by the institution.

Anna Bull, the director of the 1752 Group set up to address sexual harassment in higher education, said such a scheme would provide universities with a clear means of taking action if relationships go undeclared, with staff breaking the rules potentially facing dismissal.

“Whether universities will actually do this is another question,” said Dr Bull, a lecturer in education and social justice at the University of York. “But a major advantage of the register is this possibility.”

There were potential drawbacks, according to Dr Bull: it might “send the message such relationships are OK” and it was not clear how students would be supported and protected beyond the registration process.

Dr Bull said prohibiting all such relationships – the other option the OfS is consulting on – would be preferable as it would “make it easier to take action against sexual harassment because there would be a clear line that says any sexualised behaviour is not OK”.

But, she admitted, it is a “bit of a catch-22 as it carries a serious risk that it would just be driven underground. You can imagine in a controlling relationship how a staff member could say, ‘You will destroy my career if you speak up about this.’ It puts that student in an even more vulnerable position.”

Luke Brunning, a lecturer in applied ethics at the University of Leeds, said the OfS proposals were a “massive step in the right direction” but there was still a case to be made for adopting the “more radical proposal” of an outright ban.

He felt that the “regulatory burden” of implementing the registration proposal had been “underthought” because it was “very hard to police and creates a grey zone of ambiguity that staff can operate in”.

“It is confusing and sends mixed signals,” he said of the plan. “You are telling staff this is something you can do, just let us know about it. I’m not convinced that is robust enough.”

Dr Bull agreed with the OfS that sector-wide regulation was needed on harassment and sexual misconduct because universities’ responses to the issues had been “very patchy”.

But, she said, the regulator was going to have to “get their hands dirty in terms of the detail of the delivery of this”.

“Staff who are handling complaints and reports are carrying all the risk and responsibilities because there is a lack of guidance on how to do this work,” Dr Bull said, adding that legal advice had indicated that regulatory obligations could equip providers with “firmer ground” to, for example, share the results of complaints, an area where universities have been very cautious because of data protection concerns.



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Reader's comments (1)

I'd support an outright ban. The power imbalance really means such relationships are inappropriate and often problematic for both sides.