University systems across the world should follow Australia’s lead in adopting a sector-wide position on relationships between staff and students, campaigners say.
Earlier this week, four Australian representative bodies adopted guidance stating that relationships between academics and research students were “never appropriate” and that, when they occur, supervisory arrangements should be severed.
Tiffany Page, co-founder of The 1752 Group, which campaigns against staff-to-student sexual misconduct in British higher education, argued that the UK should follow suit.
Dr Page, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Cambridge, said that only one-third of UK universities had policies on staff-student relationships, and their provisions – including disclosure requirements and disciplinary procedures – varied greatly.
“Having sector-wide principles or regulations to guide the postgraduate-supervisor relationship is a huge step forward,” she said.
Universities Australia, a co-signatory to the Australian guidance, said that the move to reallocate research students who enter into a relationship with their supervisors was designed to benefit both parties, as well as other students overseen by the same academic. “Perceptions of bias or favourable treatment might crop up,” said chief executive Catriona Jackson.
“It’s just better to have a standard procedure where the supervisor gets removed, another supervisor is found and that nexus is broken.”
Dr Page said that relationships between students and supervisory staff should be “strongly discouraged” from the outset, to avoid the disruption of changing supervisors.
The Australian guidelines apply only to postgraduates, who can spend long stretches working closely with supervisors.
But Dr Page said that the UK should go further, advocating the setting of professional boundaries such as those in medical and therapy settings, and suggesting that they could also apply at undergraduate level. “There is a need for a sector-wide discussion in different countries on whether an outright ban is appropriate for all staff-to-student relationships,” she said.
The Australian guidelines were released on the anniversary of a landmark report into sexual harassment and assault on campus. They say that the “unequal power dynamic” in research degrees can leave students vulnerable to exploitation, affecting their capacity to “consent freely” to sex or relationships.
“A student’s academic progress must never depend on consenting to a sexual relationship with [a] member of staff,” the document stresses.
Ms Jackson noted that in particularly specialist subjects, finding an alternative supervisor could be “quite a complicated task”.
“It’s the university’s responsibility to find that alternative supervisor, not the student’s,” she said. “The last thing we want to do is make things more complicated for students.”
The document suggests that universities can manage the problem proactively by establishing co-supervisory arrangements from the outset. The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, which co-authored the guidelines, said that universities should ensure that all research students had multiple supervisors “so that their research project is not jeopardised in the event that one supervisor needs to be removed”.
This is a moot point in Australia, where the Higher Education Standards Framework already mandates at least two supervisors for every research student. The Australian Council of Graduate Research said that co-supervision or supervisory panels were also standard practice in the UK and US.
Capa president Natasha Abrahams said that in niche areas, co-supervisors could be drafted from other institutions. “People’s research projects are sometimes so concentrated that you need expertise not available at your university.”