Oxford bans intimate relationships between staff and students

Prohibition covers students that staff have direct responsibility for, ahead of introduction of new sector-wide rules

March 8, 2023
OXFORD, ENGLAND - 8 APRIL 2017 - People walk on a street in Oxford university on a fine spring day of April 8, 2017 in Oxford, England.
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The University of Oxford is to ban staff from entering into intimate relationships with students that they teach, amid intense sector debate on the topic.

Oxford’s new policy, which will be effective from 17 April, prohibits staff from forming intimate relationships with any student they have any responsibility for, including applicants, and “strongly discourage[s]” any “other close personal relationship with them which transgresses the boundaries of professional conduct”.

Staff who fail to comply with the policy may face disciplinary action.

The new policy comes after the English sector regulator proposed that universities should have to maintain a register of all staff-student personal relationships, as part of wider efforts to combat harassment and sexual misconduct.

The Office for Students said this was its preferred option, rather than an outright sector-wide ban on such relationships, but some academics have said that prohibition would send a clearer message that exploitation of students was not acceptable.

An Oxford spokeswoman said that the university’s previous policy had strongly discouraged intimate relationships between staff and students but had not banned them.

“This policy has been developed over the course of many months – to allow for time to consult across the university – and is not in response to the recent OfS consultation in this area or recent media reports,” she said.

Under the OfS’ proposals, academics who failed to disclose intimate relationships with students would face dismissal. Demonstrating progress in this area is being made a condition of registration by the OfS after it said some institutions had been slow to prioritise these issues.

Oxford said that in the case of existing staff-student relationships that were reported under the new policy, the focus would be “on avoiding conflicts of interest by ensuring the staff member ceases to have, or does not acquire, any responsibility for the student”.

A 2020 study of 102 higher education institutions in England and Wales found that only six institutions explicitly forbade sexual relationships between staff and students. Fifty-one simply discouraged such relationships, and 45 gave no guidance at all.

However, a number of universities have moved to tighten the rules since then.

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Reader's comments (2)

Staff student relationships should always be declared to prevent allegations of favouritism or abuse but also prevent unethical or manipulative behaviour on both sides. Banning them can create a different set of issues, however given the rise of degree apprenticeships and students under 18 or who are vulnerable in other ways it would seem to be sensible to have a clear policy and guidance so everyone knows where they stand.
It's never wise to engage in an intimate relationship with someone over whom you have a measure of power or responsibility. The military addresses it well, you keep your relationships outside of the chain of command. Medics and therapists don't date their patients. But when a lecturer in history, say, engages in a consensual relationship with a student of electrical engineering?