Staff must declare intimate relationships with students, says OfS

English regulator plans to order institutions to create registers of relationships, with expectation that staff who keep liaisons secret will be sacked

February 23, 2023
Source: iStock

English universities would be required to keep a register of all staff-student “personal relationships” under new proposals aimed at reducing harassment and sexual misconduct on campuses.

Staff members would have to declare details of any such relationship – defined as involving physical or romantic intimacy and/or financial dependency – with a student they supervise, teach or have responsibility for in any other way.

The Office for Students said if its proposal was adopted following consultation, it would be expected that any staff member found to be conducting a relationship that has not been disclosed “should be liable for dismissal”.

The register was the English regulator’s “preferred option” for addressing issues connected to the abuse of power and conflicts of interest that may arise when intimate relationships between staff and students develop, but it has also indicated it will consider views on an outright ban.

A consultation document makes clear that the purpose of introducing a register would be to prevent personal relationships developing.

“If relevant staff members are required to disclose personal relationships, that and the knowledge that steps might be taken by a provider in response to such disclosure (or a refusal to disclose), could deter such personal relationships,” it says, adding “this option would not prohibit relationships but we consider that it would and should have the effect of providers expressly discouraging them”.

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, said that while the “majority of those working in higher education behave appropriately towards their students”, it was recognised that “there can be a power imbalance in personal relationships that could be exploited by unscrupulous staff to subject students to harassment or sexual misconduct”.

The English regulator revealed the move as part of wider proposals for how it intends to regulate universities and force them to better deal with concerns about harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education.

Research has shown students are three times more likely to experience incidents such as sexual assault, while a review by Universities UK indicated that there was widespread uncertainty about appropriate professional boundaries between staff and students, as well as under-reporting of staff-to-student sexual misconduct.

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.

If adopted, the new condition would require institutions to introduce mandatory training for students and staff, publish a document outlining how it will make a “significant and credible difference” to reducing harassment and sexual misconduct and face a ban of the use of non-disclosure agreements in these types of cases.

Ms Lapworth said the “important proposals” would allow the OfS to take regulatory action on sexual misconduct and harassment for the first time, in recognition of the “profound and sometimes devastating” impact it can have on students and their education.

“Some universities are already doing excellent work in this area, but we know that progress across the sector has been too slow and too patchy,” she added.  

“Our independent evaluation found that self-regulation had not delivered the changes we think students are entitled to see.”

She encouraged staff and students and anyone with an interest to give their views on the proposals during the consultation, which ends on 4 May.

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Reader's comments (2)

An outright ban? For heavens sake university students are adults if over the age of 18. Staff do not stand in loco parentis as they did when the age of majority was 21.
It does not seem much to ask of us as staff to stick to the research and teaching and not have sex with our students. What is the UCU position on this?