Ask the panel

November 2, 2006

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

I teach in a new university in an inner city. I have a number of Muslim students on my course, most of whom are female. One of my students frequently comes to me for support on assignments, which I am happy to give. But last term she told me that her family wishes her to have an arranged marriage. She is firmly against this and I would describe her as distressed and deeply troubled. She is obviously worried about opposing her family. She talks to me a lot. I am a young male lecturer and am concerned that she is developing a romantic view of me. How can I best help her without becoming too involved?

Our panellists issued clear warning messages in answer to this question, with both stressing the professional boundaries between student and lecturer.

Unlike the question put to the panel last month, where an academic had actually entered into a romantic relationship with a student, there is no relationship here - but it is worth once again stressing where the boundaries lie.

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says:

"Although lecturers may have a pastoral role in relation to their students, it would not be appropriate for you to get involved, especially as you believe that your student may be developing a romantic view of you."

She adds: "To protect the interests of both you and your student, it is important that the professional parameters of your relationship are maintained. Some employers have specific policies on relations between lecturers and students, and you should check if there is one where you work and ensure that you follow any local procedures."

The UCU panellist is clear that the union regards relationships between staff and their students - for whom they have, or are likely to have, some specific academic or professional responsibility - as an important professional issue, inparticular where relationships become romantic and sexual.

"These relationships raise serious questions of conflict of interest, trust, confidence and dependency in working relations, and of equal treatment in teaching, learning, selection, assessment and research," she says.

"For the protection of staff and students, the boundaries and moral obligations of the professional role of staff must be fully recognised and respected. The UCU regards it as the unquestionable responsibility of the member of staff to ensure that this happens.

"Staff should recognise their professional and ethical respon-sibilities to protect the interests of students, to respect the trust involved in the staff-student relationship and to accept the constraints and obligations inherent in that responsibility."

She adds that, in this case, there are a number of actions that you could take to help both the student - and yourself.

"You could suggest that she talk, in confidence, to a student adviser or counsellor - they are well placed to offer advice and information," she says.

"There may also be local women's groups that may be able to offer advice and support. Let your student know about the facilities that are available to her, but steer your conversations with her on to her academic development and achievements."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association is very much in agreement with the comments from the UCU panellist, also sounding a warning note.

He says: "It would be advisable, in this instance, to refer to the university's policy on staff-student relationships and to keep the relationship professional. You could also suggest that the student seek advice from a student adviser."

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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