Supervisor-student sexual relationships ‘never OK’

Australian sector adopts ‘united viewpoint’ against unequal relationships

July 31, 2018
sexual harassment

Australia’s university sector has moved to stamp out intimate relationships between supervisors and research students, declaring that such ties are “never appropriate” and unveiling guiding principles to help forestall them.

Four national representative groups have adopted a “united viewpoint” about the issue, traditionally a grey area managed at the institutional level.

The principles, released on 31 July, are part of a flurry of activity marking the anniversary of last year’s Australian Human Rights Commission report into sexual abuse on the country’s campuses.

Universities Australia, which co-authored the new document, said that romantic attachments were always a possibility when people maintained “very intense contact” for years. “This is not about penalising the staff member or the student,” chief executive Catriona Jackson told Times Higher Education.

“It’s just about breaking the power imbalance if a relationship does arise. If a romantic or sexual relationship develops, there’s one clear course of action, and that’s to place that student with somebody else.”

The principles were also formulated by the National Tertiary Education Union, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations and the Australian Council of Graduate Research. Capa president Natasha Abrahams said that supervisor-student relationships had long been regarded as nobody else’s business.

That view had been challenged after the AHRC investigation found that postgraduate students were significantly more likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted than undergraduates – often by colleagues or supervisors. “There’s a developing awareness that it’s more like the relationship between a doctor and a patient or a psychologist and a client, rather than consenting adults,” Ms Abrahams said.

The document says that universities should recognise the power imbalance. It stresses the need for mutual respect, trust and clearly understood expectations, roles and responsibilities.

It adds that co-supervisory arrangements or panels of supervisors can help safeguard students from “situations of risk and unwanted advances”. But Ms Jackson said that there was no need for the principles to be binding “because the university vice-chancellors asked us to do this work”.

“In many cases, universities have already adopted principles like these. I assume there will be very good uptake. It’s in sync with the views universities already have,” she said.

Capa said that universities should go further and develop firm policies disallowing “inappropriate” relationships. It also called for mandatory training on ethical supervision.

The council said that universities needed to respond to sexual violence on campus with “more than just lip service” and called for additional resources for counselling services. Ms Abrahams said that they needed enough staff to avoid months-long waiting lists.

“Instead, we are seeing some universities pour money into flashy but ineffective resources such as off-the-shelf consent modules and mobile apps with links to underfunded services,” she warned.

Universities Australia said that universities had instigated 800 “major actions and initiatives” in the year since the AHRC report’s release. Ms Jackson said that this was a “pretty impressive number”.

She said: “There is always more work to be done. The university sector has made a long-term and resolute commitment to continuing this as a significant priority.”

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