Staff-student sexual misconduct guidance ‘a missed opportunity’

Group that had input into document says it seeks to ‘shore up’ institutions’ reputations rather than make a difference for students 

三月 1, 2022
Source: iStock

New guidance on tackling staff-student sexual misconduct in UK universities is a “missed opportunity” that seeks to “shore up” institutions’ reputation rather than to make a difference to students, according to the research director of a group that had input into the report.

Anna Bull, a founding member and director of research at The 1752 Group, which campaigns to end staff sexual misconduct in universities, said that while there was some “helpful and important material” in the guidance, it had prioritised keeping the “status quo” over “real change”.

As trailed last year, the guidance stops short of calling for outright bans on staff-student relationships, although it says universities should “strongly discourage close personal relationships between staff and students” with “staff removed from all responsibilities which could mean a conflict of interest” if such relationships do occur.

It also, as expected, bans the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or confidentiality clauses following settlements that arise from sexual misconduct and harassment cases.  

There should also be “clear policies in place to tackle staff-to-student sexual misconduct” while those that report concerns should be given “better support and protection” for speaking out, the guidance states.

Launching the document, Cara Aitchison, vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University and chair of the advisory group that produced it with input from campaigners like The 1752 Group, the National Union of Students, staff unions and academic experts, said it was vital to ensure “every campus has a culture of trust and a sense of belonging where students feel listened to and trust the university will act appropriately”.  

“It is critical that students who experience or witness sexual misconduct feel confident and supported to speak out and we know this can be particularly difficult where a complaint involves a staff member,” she said.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan meanwhile welcomed the “timely guidance”, saying institutions had “a profound responsibility to protect students from sexual misconduct, especially when perpetrated by those in positions of power such as a member of staff”.

However, Dr Bull, lecturer in education and social justice at the University of York, was heavily critical of the final guidance, which “overall…represents a missed opportunity”.

“It prioritises retaining the status quo over asking universities to make real change, and it is contradictory, by recommending clear professional boundaries while still allowing sexual relationships between staff and students.”

She also said it was inconsistent for the guidance to state that staff sexual misconduct was “part of the wider culture of gender inequality” when one of the issues that many lecturers were striking over was tackling the gender pay gap.

This inconsistency, “along with the relatively weak recommendations, suggest that the guidance is intended to shore up UUK’s reputation rather than to truly make a difference for students”, Dr Bull said.

“We have put weeks of our time – unpaid – into developing this guidance, on top of demanding roles within our institutions, because we wanted survivors to be represented in the discussions. Despite our best efforts, the guidance falls short of what we had hoped for,” she said. 

“Overall, we are deeply disappointed that UUK, which represents a multibillion-pound industry, has chosen to do this work on the cheap while failing to address the conditions that enable sexual misconduct to occur.”



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