Universities would have to maintain a register of personal relationships between staff and students under new plans from the Office for Students (OfS).
It’s a central and eye-catching proposal that forms part of a wider consultation on regulating harassment and sexual misconduct in English higher education – that also includes greater support for victims, and mandatory training for students and staff.
Elsewhere on the site OfS CEO Susan Lapworth introduces the proposals, and my colleague Jim Dickinson identifies some of the key developments and challenges in what’s being proposed.
But here I’ll focus on the staff/student relationships aspect of the proposed new condition of registration. The “relationships register” – very much the headline being sold to the press in this package – would apply to personal relationships in circumstances where a staff member has particular responsibilities towards a student, for example where an academic is responsible for assessing a student’s work.
The consultation proposes that any academic not disclosing such a personal relationship should be liable for dismissal. This “register” approach is OfS’ preferred option – but views are also sought on an outright ban of such personal relationships between a student and a staff member with responsibilities towards that student.
So what’s going on here? First of all, there’s a recognition in Section F that there is a power imbalance between staff and students – regardless of whether there is direct academic teaching or supervision. This is important – and something that NUS, the 1725 Group, and many a student officer have known about and campaigned on for years.
Before anyone rushes to the comment section, it’s important to note that this will not apply:
…where a relevant staff member has a personal relationship with a student by virtue of a marriage or civil partnership that existed before the date this condition came into force and remains in existence.”
No one is asking for any academic to divorce their spouse if their partner enrols in a part-time masters as a mature student – pretty much the #1 bit of whataboutery in this argument.
Amia Srinivasan has written on the psychological impact of desire transference within institutions where a person (for example, a university student) associates and idolises any individual who is related in some way to an institution posed with developing them as a person.
Most institutions have policies for staff-student relationships only when there is direct teaching or supervision (and usually to preserve academic integrity rather than for any safeguarding concerns), so the regulatory body including staff with management or support responsibilities over students – as well as those with direct teaching or supervisory responsibilities – is a move in the right direction.
Another quite radical acknowledgement within the document is the idea that because of the inherent power imbalances between staff and students, “abuses of power” may occur within seemingly consensual relationships.
Considering Srinivan’s work on desire transference it is important – and impressive – that the regulator not only addresses incidents of a “member of staff actively abusing their power to coerce a student” but also acknowledges “conflicts of interest or abuses of power that may occur within ostensibly consensual personal relationships between students and relevant staff members.”
And that even where a relevant staff member does not seek to abuse their power, “students could potentially experience the negative effects of an inherent power imbalance”.
This is something that I have been discussing for some time, and it is one of the reasons why it is difficult to have conversations around staff-student power imbalances.
Often, when you say that a relationship is an “abuse” of power, people immediately believe that you are labelling all staff members who’ve dated a student as “abusers”.
And while there are certainly issues with abusive and manipulative staff, I am not saying that universities are filled with academic Harvey Weinsteins.
I’d argue that more often, a member of staff – perhaps one who considers themselves as open-minded or as having progressive attitudes towards romantic partners (staff-student relationships are often erroneously compared to other relationships, such as same-sex or inter-racial) – may not realise just how much influence they have over a student.
Students experiencing what Srinivasan terms desire transference will enthusiastically consent at the start and during the relationship.
But there is worrying evidence that even students who enthusiastically consent to a relationship with a staff member can 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”. And even in these ill-ending scenarios, not all the staff involved will have had nefarious intentions.
So much of the discussion and the safeguarding around staff-student relationships tends to be about tangible and blatant influence – such as a staff member explicitly offering material benefits to the student.
So the explicit acknowledgement from OfS of the tacit influence staff can possess, and the implicit threat – real or imagined by the student involved – as having a tangible impact on the student, is encouraging. Because it is real, whether the staff intends for it to be or not.
To tackle all of this, OfS has put forward two proposals in dealing with staff-student relationships – and expresses a preference.
One, which it does not favour, but I do for reasons previously argued – is that providers prohibit any relevant staff member from having a personal relationship with one or more students, and take appropriate steps, which would normally be dismissal of the relevant staff member, in circumstances where they refuse to end a personal relationship.
The other – which it recommends – is that providers take all reasonable steps to require any relevant staff member to disclose any personal relationship that the relevant staff member has with any student (including the nature of that personal relationship), and maintain a register of any such personal relationships that exist between a relevant staff member and a student (including the nature of any such personal relationships) with an expectation that providers mitigate for any conflict of interests.
I understand why OfS is swaying towards the latter – not least because it already nods towards the need for individual and institutional autonomy in the document – but also because the framing for those abuses of power is the unintentional whoopsie daisy rather than something insidious.
But we can’t make a policy around that presumption. Even if nine out of ten staff in relationships with students are well-intentioned, declare and place themselves on the proposed register, and comply with mitigations, are we sure those with bad intentions will also? And it then all becomes about staff honesty with line managers rather than protecting students.
It also relies on staff-student relationships as being easily defined, divided into “allowed” or “not allowed”, and fitting neatly onto a risk register.
Here OfS defines relationships as:
- physical intimacy including isolated or repeated sexual activity
- romantic or emotional intimacy;
- financial dependency.
I have spoken to many students – sometimes in Wonkhe zoom calls, sometimes in hushed corners of campus cafes – who’ve felt they’ve been on the receiving end of a manipulative, charismatic staff member.
And they’ve often found the relationship that took place very hard to define. One student I met four years ago explained through tears, “I don’t know what it was – I just know I wanted him to love me.”
These students feel they were lured in by a staff member meeting them for coffee, praising them as “gifted”, and treating them in a special way. This is grooming, which is why it is so hard to recognise – both as a victim and an onlooker.
Can we really categorise what is known to normally be boundary blurring behaviour? Particularly when – as the regulator notes – there is currently “widespread uncertainty about appropriate professional boundaries between staff and students”.
Come on, now…
If your solution is putting established relationships onto a register, the danger is that you ignore that those relationships must start first. By telling staff, “just declare a relationship when you have one with a student,” you send a signal of implicit permission to make advances.
But there are significant harms even where “advances” don’t lead to actual relationships or encounters. This study saw decreased self-perception of academic ability, more negative perceptions about how their staff viewed them, and lower self-esteem due to the “come on” itself. And these incidents will never make it to a register.
OfS argues that it’s been mindful of the human right to a private life in developing its proposals – but from a student point of view, is it too much to ask that students can go about their business without being hit on by staff?
It’s all the more concerning given that OfS explicitly acknowledges – after assessing a wealth of research and evidence – that there are major barriers which prevent students from reporting staff misconduct.
OfS even speculates that students may consider that reporting concerns may damage their studies and future careers, affect their references, or risk disruption to their studies – and yet favours a policy option that relies on students having to report relationships to the university.
So to be clear, the analysis here on power, influence and harms is important and welcome. OfS now just has to go one step further – prioritising students’ right to study free from sexual advances over any staff right to sleep with them.