Half of universities have no rules governing relationships betweenacademics and their students. Phil Baty reports
Universities were accused this week of leaving staff and students vulnerable to harassment and abuse as The Times Higher found that half of UK institutions do not have any policies governing relationships between lecturers and students.
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI), The Times Higher found that 50 out of 102 institutions have no policy requiring staff to declare sexual or other relationships with students that might give rise to a conflict of interest.
Experts and trade unions said that clear rules and openness were essential to protect all parties where serious issues of trust and fairness were at stake, and where apparently consensual relationships between adults could be vulnerable to abuse.
The research found that among the 52 institutions that have rules governing relationships, as is advised, few appear to apply them. Only 17 universities had any current, recorded declarations on file.
Deborah Lee, senior lecturer in sociology at Nottingham Trent University, who has published on abusive relationships between staff and students, said that The Times Higher had revealed "largely hidden problems in UK higher education that must be addressed - if universities are interested in the wellbeing of the academic community.
"That 50 universities do not have policies requiring staff to declare relationships with students is appalling. This is an important equal opportunities issue. Universities that do not have these policies must now develop them as a matter of urgency to safeguard students and staff."
Meg Barker, senior lecturer in psychology at London South Bank University, said: "Clear well-publicised rules would hopefully lead to a culture of openness that would also enable both staff and students to clearly object to any unwanted attention from the outset.
"It would also mean that those students and staff in relationships of any kind could be upfront about these in a way that would hopefully prevent malicious gossip, accusations of favouritism and bullying behaviour."
Rachel Curley, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said relationships should always be declared because they "raise serious questions of conflict of interest, trust, confidence and of equal treatment".
Veronica King, a vice-president at the National Union of Students, said the lack of policy jeopardised the fairness of student assessment. "Students should be treated equally and their grades should reflect their academic ability only," she said.
The Fo... responses revealed that at the 52 universities that had appropriate policies, only 73 individual relationships had been recorded, representing a tiny proportion of the 150,000 academic staff and 2.2 million students in higher education.
Of the 73, five were defined as being of a sexual/romantic nature, but such relationships may have been included among the three defined as "personal friendships", and the 16 "social" relationships declared. The remainder were made up largely of family relationships, with 40 declarations in that category.
Heriot-Watt University was by far the most open on the issue. Its conflict-of-interest policy, which was approved by governors in 2004, has 22 declarations. Some 16 staff had declared "social" relationships with students, including the membership of sports or social clubs and churches.
Five declared family relationships.
Aberdeen University's guidelines state that the institution "does not seek unduly to interfere in relationships between consenting adults". But staff are encouraged "not to abuse power and trust in staff-student relationships". Where a sexual relationship exists or develops between a lecturer and their student, it is the responsibility of the member of staff to inform their line manager or head of school.
Liverpool University confirmed that it did not have a policy, but said: "We recognise, however, that staff have professional and ethical responsibilities to protect the interests of students."
Sheffield Hallam University said it was considering its first "relationships at work policy", to take effect from January.
Oxford University said it had no specific policy, but added that there was a conflict-of-interest policy and a "general expectation" that relationships be declared.
A Universities UK spokesperson said: "This has not come up as a particular area of concern for UUK members. Policies - and the implementation of those policies - on sensitive areas such as these are the responsibility of the individual institution. Higher education institutions are responsible employers that work within available legislation."