Sexism and the sex lives of staff 1

January 7, 2005

It is time to stop lecherous lecturers of all sexual orientations preying on students and not just the males that Meg Barker highlights in her article ("Power of the laddish predator", December 10).

But the culture that supports this behaviour belongs to all of us in higher education and cannot be changed solely by institutional policies intended to discourage relationships between lecturers and students. Too often these policies are based on the idea that "there is a big difference between developing mutual feelings with an undergraduate and treating freshers like fresh meat", as Barker puts it.

It is difficult to understand how feelings, mutual or otherwise, can develop if a lecturer behaves in a professional and caring way towards all students. Implicit in this care is acute awareness that studying for a degree and adjusting to university life are hard enough without, as one student confided to me, "lecturers coming on to us and doing our heads in".

Lecturers have a responsibility to ensure that "feelings" for a student do not develop until the student has completed their final year and is free from all pressure caused by the attentions of a person with considerable power over their immediate future. It is worrying that some staff do not see relationships between themselves and students as a problem, and that their behaviour is often tacitly condoned by other staff because they are embarrassed or fear the consequences of complaining about this gross abuse of power - particularly if the perpetrator is a line manager.

The practice of treating students as if they are sexually or emotionally available destroys professional working and staff-student relationships.

If it is to be stopped, it must be understood to be a matter of maintaining moral, intellectual and professional standards through cultural change.

This might be promoted through professional short courses; trade unions might play a useful role in providing these. But it must be assumed that the trade union representative who told me recently that "students are over 18 and can sleep with whom they like" is not representative of his institutional branch or the wider union membership.

Name and address withheld

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