Permitting staff-student relationships harms education

Sunday Blake argues that silence on staff-student relationships in OfS' new statement on harassment and sexual misconduct fails everyone.

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

When the Office for Students (OfS) published its statement of expectations on sexual harassment and misconduct, it was accompanied by a blog by its CEO Nicola Dandridge which centred the issues in the context of education.

“Universities and colleges should be about open intellectual engagement between students and lecturers in an atmosphere of trust and respect”, said Dandridge, “yet for too many students, the spirit of open inquiry is closed by the threat of harassment and sexual assault.”

That makes perfect sense. But if this is indeed OfS’ vision, I’m confused by the omission of any explicit mention of staff-student sexual relationships.

Harmful to education

Survey data demonstrates just how uncomfortable students find the concept. One study found that 95 per cent of students find student-staff relationships “ethically inappropriate, coercive, exploitative, or harmful to students’ education”, and another gave staff-student relationships a mean score on an “inappropriateness” scale of 4.48 out of 5.

The arguments I have heard in favour of staff-student relationships have always come from staff, and always male staff. The stats suggest to me that students are saying that they really don’t want staff to have sex with them – and we should listen to them, not the staff that are saying “yes, they do.”

Of all the students I have spoken to – and there have been many – I have never once heard a student suggest that sex with a member of staff is acceptable. What I have heard is plenty of objections from male members of staff who argue that they met their long-married wife when she was a student at his institution. They have no comment on the whereabouts or wellbeing of the students who came before her.

And there is worrying evidence that even students who do enthusiastically consent to a relationship with a staff member face negative impacts when the relationship ends. One study found that students who did consent to a sexual encounter with staff later saw it as “extremely exploitative and harmful” in retrospect, and described feeling “betrayed,” and “used”.

Even where “advances” don’t lead to actual relationships or encounters, there are significant harms. This study saw decreased self-perception of academic ability, more negative perceptions about how their staff viewed them, and lower self-esteem as a result of the “come on” itself.

Power games

Sometimes, we see tentative steps – policies which outlaw relationships or sexual contact between staff and the students they directly teach. But those policies overlook the influence that all staff have over impressionable students, regardless of a direct academic or pastoral link.

Amia Srinivasan has written on the psychological impact of desire transference within institutions where a person (normally a psychiatric patient or a university student) associates and idolises individuals who are related in some way to the institution posed with developing them as a person (whether emotionally or academically). It is such a common phenomenon in psychiatry that that sector adopted a zero-tolerance policy to any relationship between staff and patient decades ago. As a sector we are miles behind.

I’d wager that this impacts students from widening participation backgrounds – who may feel they need more help in establishing themselves within an unfamiliar environment, or do not have role models in academia in their private lives or family units – much more so than other demographics.

What I know is that students who have had relationships with staff who don’t teach them find that when relationships break down, staff members turn to their support networks of friends – some of whom are colleagues. It’s bad enough that they may have to study on campus with someone who is an ex-partner, it’s worse if someone has actively groomed them. And how do we think students feel about interacting with that staff member’s friends and colleagues, many of whom may be their direct teachers?

In real cases across the country that I’m aware of, staff members have vehemently and unconditionally defended their colleagues against ex-student “lovers.” In one incident colleagues of a member of staff who had been sleeping with a student approached that student to enquire about the circumstances of the pregnancy that resulted from the relationship – which had ended in miscarriage weeks prior.

That student couldn’t work on campus for the remainder of the year through fear of:

not knowing which members of staff I walked past knew which details of my private life and which didn’t, or what they had been told about me.”

When that university’s HR were made aware that this staff member was disclosing extremely sensitive information to other staff members, their response to that students’ distress was that “he needed friends’ support”. If that’s true, it’s exactly why relationships and sexual contact should be prohibited in the first place.

The point is that the Office for Students’ standard that providers’ investigation processes will be “demonstrably fair, independent and free from any reasonable perception of bias” can’t be met as long as providers permit staff-student relationships and sexual contact.

And that’s if students complain at all. Of those I’ve worked with, they’ve been so emotionally and mentally harmed through relationships with staff that dropping out of university as a result has become a recurring theme. The relationship, and consequential fallout, teaches them that they cannot trust university staff.

What use is “clear” and “easy to understand” information on how to report sexual misconduct to students if they cannot trust the institutions they are supposed to report to?

Integrity and reputation

There are other tentative steps. Some universities seek to protect the integrity and reputation of the university by asking staff to “declare” any close personal relationships and any intimate relationships with students that they don’t have responsibility for. But that’s reductive for multiple reasons:

  • Only staff with good intentions are likely to offer up such information. Staff who abuse their power to coerce and manipulate students are unlikely to declare relationships because abusers rely on isolation tactics. Alerting other staff to their improper relationship would be counterintuitive for them.
  • Students in undeclared relationships will feel pressured to keep them secret – isolating them from intervention or help. The threat of “getting the staff member in trouble” will hang above them. This will cut them off from their friends who may be able to intervene. Students have also expressed fear that they themselves will be penalised because they did not declare the relationship, which further isolates them.

And anyway, the focus with policies like that is on staff honesty with their line managers rather than abuse of power and influence. It’s the latter that should be guiding this policy.

We also need to see guidance on student sex workers. Lots of research and media in the last few years has focused on the number of students who, in dealing with the increasing financial pressures of higher education, have turned to sex work to fund their studies. There’s less visibility on the staff that buy it from their university’s students. Those who have had transactional sex with staff members due to the financial necessity report feelings of increased vulnerability, and fear of being “outed” to other members of staff with whom they do have direct contact.

Student sex workers are already overwhelmingly from already marginalised demographics and thus even more vulnerable. Given that student sex workers are unlikely to disclose abuses of power in these cases, as to do so would be to reveal their sex working status to the university with knock-on implications arising from stigma or lack of proper policies, there should be a zero-tolerance policy for all relationships of that sort.

As well as the harm caused to students engaged in inappropriate sexual relationships, we should also think about the harm caused to those who are not. A haunting quote from academic staff I have spoken to highlights this:

I once worked with a man who was known to have relationships with students. I was personal tutor for a couple of students he taught with whom he had not had relationships. I saw the damage that this did – not just to the young woman whom he “picked” but to all those he didn’t “pick.”

Protecting everyone from harm

In a small act of sympathy to staff members who have no issue sleeping with students, let’s remember that sexual and romantic relationships must first be initiated by one party. The Office for Students defines “harassment” via Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010 as including “unwanted behaviour” which could be intimidating and “unwanted sexual advances” (as set out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: Sexual harassment and the law, 2017).

So where does that leave staff who work at universities where the policy environment gives them the go-ahead to approach students romantically? If staff-student sexual relationships are allowed, that opens staff up to accusations of harassment. And even if the advances are reciprocated, and both parties disclose, there is still an increased risk of legal liability and administrative pressure upon the institution, and a risk of reputational damage.

Given the dire outcomes for students and universities, I can’t understand why OfS is leaving this crucial policy decision to institutional autonomy. How is it that universities are free to cultivate cultures in which students and their education are harmed, as someone mumbles something about “a right to a private life”? Staff should have no right to hit on students, and students should have the right to study without being hit on by those in power.

Examples used in this piece were anonymous and from various institutions around the country

6 responses to “Permitting staff-student relationships harms education

  1. As with so many of these items it’s portrayed as a powerful male weak female abuse situation, and no doubt there are many of these cases that are, but as a Trades Union rep I’ve had to deal with powerful females (mostly academics) abusing males, and females, and powerful males abusing males too.

    Proscription of relationships between academics and students they supervise/lecture needs to happen, but those that they don’t? We are talking about ‘adults’ after all (those at Uni under 18 have specific legal ‘protections’ as they are still ‘children’ in law).

    Then there’s the relationship issues that come up between students and non-academic staff, often because the technicians are the only support some students have, PhD students especially so, with some seeking comfort in the arms of those that have supported them (I had experience of a female PhD student coming onto me early in my career, and was warned by an academic if I should get involved they’d ruin me as the female students were seen as ‘their’ perks, the male student who came on to me was of no interest to them however). Who holds the power in such circumstances? And who is the abuser?

    There is much work to do, but it needs to be across the board and applied equally to all.

    1. Hi John – I wonder if a re-read of your comment and some reflecting on how that illustrates neatly many of the issues in Sunday’s article might be worthwhile? That one male staff member would threaten another male staff member’s job due to a sexual interest in a student illustrates an abuse of role power towards the male staff member, for sure, but the core issue here is treating students as property to be traded and bartered for.

      That students should seek “comfort in the arms” of those providing pastoral support as a member of staff, due to being the only support available, exactly illustrates an exploitative dynamic between a vulnerable adult and someone with power over them. The same dynamic applies between near enough all staff and all students, due to the institutional power they hold. This is covered at length in the article.

      The core issue isn’t one of legal age, rather the power dynamic inherent between student and staff, in an institutional setting.

  2. This is a conversation that should be squarely on the HE agenda. When I was a PhD student, a friend was in a relationship with her 64-year-old professor which began when she was 19. Something happened between him and another student who reported it and was then painted as the crazy, jealous one trying to split up the stable and mature relationship (it wasn’t that). The Uni didn’t do much, presumably because the policy was so blurry. However, the longer term relationship impacted my friend’s mental health, she seemed to be stuck in it despite telling me the manipulative things he would say and do. It also made other male colleagues treat her and myself negatively for rejecting other advances. I think there are too many negative risks to students in relationships with staff.

  3. I think this article raises some very important points and should be widely read within the HE sector. I wonder how many students with experience of this nature the OfS engaged with prior to making their policy decisions? I guess none, otherwise I think their position would be quite different.

    There should quite simply be a blanket policy that relationships between staff and students is unacceptable. I realise that many will disagree but at 18 many students are still very naive and as a result make decisions (pressured or otherwise) that they later come to regret. They have just left school where such behaviour is not OK and their perception of the student teacher relationship will transfer with them. It must then come as a shock when they realise that now they are “fair game” in he eyes of the law and all the very sick individuals who engage in such behaviour at institutions. It might be legal but does it pass the moral sniff test? I think not. Ask yourself this…. If it was your son or daughter would it be OK? Just because something is legal it does not make it right and proper. The fact that there is so much debate on the subject is shocking in itself. Yes a few long term marriages may have come about this way but does that make it OK to sweep all the devistation under the carpet?

    Ideally there should be a blanket ban but if not then should a relationship start then really it would be more healthy if one party were required to transfer to a different institution. This would safeguard to some extent. It should be mandatory to inform HR of any student/teacher relationship and that student should be required to talk with an independent person who can enquire as to the nature of the relationship and offer the student information, advice and guidance (staff have the benefit of age and experience students don’t, they should be fully informed about what they might experience). It should also be mandatory to notify the institution when the relationship ends and the institution should be required to provide independent support to the student to ensure their wellbeing. Relationship break ups are hard enough without this added complication.

    I can’t help but feel that students have been failed by the OfS on this subject and deserve better from an organisation that is suppose to regulate in their interest. Shame on you!

  4. I think prohibiting staff-student relationships is the only sensible way to handle this. If there is a real attraction between a member of staff and a student (who are, after all, consenting adults) they can simply agree to leave it until after the student graduates and then pursue it if they both still feel the attraction.

  5. It’s just really difficult, at a basic level, not to see it as a conflict of interest (and one that you can’t mitigate for), particularly given the nature of the relationship between student/teacher (and between student and a lot of other administrative/support roles).

    It’s interesting that it is also a recommendation of the separate Wonkhe article from those working directly in this area (as researchers and practitioners): https://wonkhe.com/blogs/how-to-do-more-than-the-bare-minimum-on-harassment-and-sexual-misconuct/.

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