Ask the panel

October 13, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

My husband has just told me that he is having an affair with one of his students. I am completely devastated and angry. I never imagined that he would have a relationship with a student as he is well into his forties. But he says that she is a mature student, married and has three children. He tells me that she is academically brilliant and set to get a first. Can his judgment be trusted and should I notify the university?

Our panellists agree that there are serious issues of trust raised here and that your husband ought to consider telling the university.

There have been cases in the past where wives have informed the university, but it is far better if your husband does this. Such situations can be difficult for all concerned, and being open about the issue seems to be the best way of avoiding possible pitfalls.

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "Relationships between members of staff and their students raise serious questions concerning conflict of interest, trust, confidence and dependency in working relations and of equal treatment in teaching, learning, selection, assessment and research.

"Embarking on a sexual/romantic relationship with a student always involves serious risks and may involve serious difficulties rooted in the unequal power, and hence choice, of the parties concerned, as well as real problems in maintaining the boundaries of professional and personal life. Such relationships can also disrupt the teaching and learning environment for other students and colleagues."

She adds: "In the event of involvement in a relationship with a student, particularly where it is a romantic/sexual one, the member of staff is encouraged to declare it to an appropriate superior or colleague, or to a third party designated by the university for that purpose after consultation with the UCU.

"Staff should be assured that such a declaration will be treated in complete confidence, and there should not be a requirement to give details of the nature of the involvement. This assurance will be particularly important where the circumstances place either party in the relationship in a difficult situation.

"It should then be the duty of the appropriate authorities within the university to facilitate the reorganisation of a staff member's professional duties to avoid contact with the student concerned.

"While staff are strongly advised to disclose such relationships, failure to do so should not, in itself, constitute grounds for disciplinary action.

"It is in your husband's interests to disclose the relationship to the university and, if possible, you should persuade him to do so and to take advice from his union representative."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "Your husband should be aware that personal relationships with students can give rise to a conflict of interest that may cause an imbalance of power between the member of staff and the student.

"This situation can lead to accusations of harassment, allegations of improper behaviour or favouritism, which could lead to disciplinary action being taken against the member of staff."

He adds: "It is therefore important that he finds out whether his university has a policy on personal relationships between staff and students as soon as possible and that he follows the procedure and guidance that it sets out. Even if it doesn't have one, it would be in his best interests, and those of the student concerned, to declare the relationship to his head of department, dean or other relevant senior manager, and to discuss appropriate alternative arrangements that could be put in place with respect to the student's assessment, supervision, teaching and/or pastoral care."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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