Staff-student relationships should be banned, not managed

A new report on staff-on-student sexual misconduct is based on three principles, but it also makes three fundamental errors, argues Sunday Blake

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

Given the early years of Universities UK’s work on “changing the culture” (around harassment and sexual misconduct on campus) were focused on student-student behaviour, then it is something of a relief that it has now got around to addressing some of the staff-student issues in this area.

Its new report – Changing the culture: tackling staff-to-student sexual misconduct sets out a definition that universities should use when defining staff-on-student sexual misconduct, and follows up with four sets of recommendations on culture, policies and procedures, practice, and data.

The report describes the multiple issues raised in this area by activists and campaign groups in recent years: limited evidence and data on cases, incoherent and inconsistent information sharing protocols (which allow perpetrators to switch institutions easily), and provision that would allow alumni to make complaints against current staff.

It agrees with (Westminster) further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan’s call for an end to the use of non-disclosure agreements, calls for a move towards a “[c]ollective responsibility”, and argues that “a whole institution response” within the university community is needed to tackle this problem.

There’s more to do – it acknowledges the rights of both reporting and responding parties in a complaint, but falls short of explaining how universities should address complaints fairly as a result. It notes some of the issues with information sharing and balancing privacy/GDPR rights against other important rights, but says more work is needed on halting perpetrators from being able to roam free.

Nevertheless, central to it all is the creation of “consistently clear professional boundaries” that are then enforced and tackled. But what is the nature of the boundaries being proposed?

Changing the goalposts?

Here’s the problem. If the central thread is really about professional boundaries, then a central disappointment is the absence of any comment on staff-student relationships as a form of misconduct in and of itself. Last year a small handful of universities outright banned staff-student relationships – a move I fully support for both students, staff, and teaching quality – and plenty of people in the sector had hoped that this report would comprehend the need for such a prohibition.

Other sectors such as medicine and law are years ahead of higher education in this respect. Relationships and sexual conduct might well be “discouraged” here, but the only requirement the report makes is that staff should declare relationships with students – putting the emphasis on honesty with line managers rather than protecting vulnerable students.

This omission displays three fundamental errors in approaching staff-student sexual misconduct. The first, in framing “misconduct” as “assault and harassment” rather than framing romantic or sexual intimacy with students as a blanket wrong (which would encompass assault and harassment, too) the report plays into the misconception that the problem with staff-student sexual misconduct is big, bad perpetrators who physically assault always-resistant victims – who themselves clearly articulate their lack of consent.

In reality, the problem is charming, charismatic, and likeable members of staff who manipulate vulnerable students into “consenting” relationships using the grey areas of such policy to justify their behaviour. What the report, and the sector, misunderstand is that the perpetrators are not locking students in hotel rooms like Harvey Weinstein, or randomly exposing themselves like Louis CK. They are meeting them for coffee, praising them as “special”, slowly initiating intimacy, and then declaring the relationship (sometimes). This is what grooming is – and it is why it is so hard to identify. It is also why only an outright ban on staff-student relationships can be adequate in dealing with it in universities.

Comfort and confidence

The second logical error the report makes is to assume that the student – after a relationship breakdown involving an individual who, to them, represents the institution – will be comfortable enough to trust the very same institution to act in their best interests should they come forward with concerns over “grey areas” and whether lines have been crossed.

And the third is the assumption that all parties agree on what is – and isn’t – within these “grey areas”. In the report, UUK defines sexual misconduct as physically or emotionally intimate or sexual behaviour by a member of staff that “is reasonably considered as inappropriate and/or unacceptable”. So, who gets to define what is “reasonably considered” as inappropriate? Students? Staff? Senior management?

This matters – because there is a lot of evidence to show that students find staff-student relationships a lot more inappropriate than staff do. Perhaps this is a generational split, or perhaps students understand to a greater extent the power difference between the two parties, given that they are the ones on the underside of it. Probably both.

In one study, 95 per cent of students find student-staff relationships “ethically inappropriate, coercive, exploitative, or harmful to students’ education.” In another, students gave staff-student relationships a mean score on an “inappropriateness” scale of 4.48 out of 5. Millennials and Gen Z may see sexual harassment where older generations see an innocent romantic proposal.

Never OK? What is OK?

Recently, a friend of mine was approached at a work event by a very senior sector colleague who asked her on a date. She was not sure whether it was appropriate.

What was interesting was that when we discussed it with colleagues those born mid-80s onwards were adamant that it was sexual harassment. But a “boomer” colleague born before then argued that “this is very normal. It’s how dating works.” Of course, if there is such a difference in understanding between two parties, this raises the question as to whether the relationship is appropriate anyway, student and staff or not – but that’s a different point.

Even if approaching people at work in positions of vulnerability over whom you have power (and all staff are in positions of power over all students) is how an older generation see normal dating, it is still a problem if the majority of students do not. If the people your guidance purports to protect consider permitted staff behaviour to be harassment then you are not protecting them.

And surely that’s what issuing guidance on tackling staff-on-student sexual misconduct ought to be about. Students – largely young – are claiming that something is making them feel uncomfortable, and staff, largely of older generations, are dismissing these concerns. So what is the point of these policies?

This isn’t just an argument about student feelings (cue the usual snowflake accusations). Here UUK requests that staff are “discouraged” from relationships with students. Are serial perpetrators really going to listen to discouragement? In the absence of clear policy, with clear consequences, doesn’t this just mean that individuals are given the go-ahead to approach students romantically and sexually?

Definitional issues

When students perceive sexual harassment – feelings aside – they are within their rights to submit a complaint. And the real banger with this is that UUK has taken its definition of sexual harassment from Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010. According to this same Act, institutions are obligated to investigate incidents, not if there has been a provable transgression, but “if the victim perceives” that there has been. As such, that student perception of acceptability is pretty important even if you are just trying to cut down on paperwork.

And regardless of the extent of staff time, paperwork, and reputational and legal risk this would create, what do students do – or should do, and have the right to do – when they feel their complaints have not been listened to or taken seriously? They go to independent adjudication, or they go to the media. And we all know how those storms end. For the institution? More work. For the student – particularly if they tell their story openly – a lot more stress and potentially more trauma. By vaguely defining “misconduct” as “harassment”, and ignoring the vast generational differences in perception while doing so, the UUK report is allowing institutions to open up their staff to accusations of harassment and their students to being harassed.

Differences in opinion on harassment aside, there is research that backs up how detrimental such approaches are to students. 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. Because regardless of whether UUK suggests that staff should declare “[i]f a relationship does occur,” how do they think these occurrences begin in the first place? Someone has to make the first move.

Of course, the irony of this conundrum is that the report seeks to remove the reliance on the “emotional labour” of victims to tackle sexual violence. But the guidance is wholly reliant on a retrospective approach where institutions respond to survivors coming forward with their experiences rather than preventative policies, such as banning student-staff relationships outright. As such and ironically, guidance that purports to be about changing the culture really seems to be about managing it.

9 responses to “Staff-student relationships should be banned, not managed

  1. My view is that separating into “Staff” and “Students” is a bit simplistic as it is actually about positions of power. I definitely don’t agree with the statement “all staff are in positions of power over all students” – is a 21 year old female personal trainer at the University gym (who is a member of university staff) in a position of power over a 29 year old male PhD student who never attends the gym?

    If it is all about academic staff that should be made clear, but what about academic related? Who is a member of staff and who is a student also tends to break down at the PhD/PostDoc level. Separating into “students” and “staff” implies it is okay for a professor to be in a relationship with a PostDoc they are supervising, but not for a PostDoc to be in a relationship with a PhD student in a completely different department.

  2. The framing here seems to follow the usual gendered stereotyping “Recently, a friend of mine was approached at a work event by a very senior sector colleague who asked her on a date. She was not sure whether it was appropriate.” which as the gender of the ‘very senior colleague’ is not stated the inference is it’s a male. But what if, life’s full of what if’s, it was a predatory female?

    Winchester had an issue with an academic male homosexual predator, switch the gender and ban other relationships (partner violence in same sex relationships is higher than hetro-normative relationships) looks likely to impact those still discovering themselves and their sexuality.

    The LAW as it is should be sufficient to deal with this, adult consent (over 18) is now a prerequisite for sexual relationships (16 year olds consenting with over 18’s is fraught with danger for the older person), dealing with the abuse of power needs to apply to all, including predatory females no matter the gender of their target, once that equity is reached then perhaps we can have a meaningful discussion about power dynamics and banning relationships, removing agency from adults seems to be a very retrograde step.

  3. I agree with Andy. There are many ways to cut this and it usually comes down to power relationships. There may be a world of difference between a relationship between a member of staff in research services and a PGT student in another part of the institution who have no working cross-over, but met outside of ‘work’ (and may actually be close in age, which, for many people makes this more acceptable) and a relationship between, let’s say, a supervisor and their supervisee.

    If we follow the blanket ban option, both would be outlawed, but only one, I would argue, involves a problematic power dynamic.

    That doesn’t resolve the issue of grooming mentioned above, it’s true, so maybe there is an argument in favour of the blanket ban.

  4. Andy and Crysanthemum highlight the issue with a “blanket ban” (much as I would like to see that as an opening bid). UCL policy says: UCL prohibits close personal and intimate relationships between staff and students where the staff member has a direct responsibility for, or involvement in that student’s academic studies and/or personal welfare. PhD students who are employed temporarily or permanently as staff (including as demonstrators) are included as staffing.

    My experience is that the genuine/nonpredatory relationships “you know them when you see them” but putting that into policy is hard. And, will be harder to enforce. The problem currently is is allowing for those exceptions, we open the door to cunning and manipulative people who WILL take advantage of this stance.

    For me, the “PostDoc to be in a relationship with a PhD student in a completely different department” means (i) it is unlikely to be “picked up” but also (ii) in the event that it is, the responsibility has to be on the postdoc (whoever) to be clear in showing that there is no direct (even vague) responsibility for the student.

    Some will then argue that “personal welfare” of the student may be affected if that relationship goes sour but isn’t that “life” (under these circumstances)? That “what if” tends to be a tactic to reduce the effectiveness of a measure and any reasonable person should be able to see through that.

    It is about reasonable and reasonable people, but again that’s hard to incorporate into policy (for me at any rate).

    C’s final sentence (re grooming) is a real issue and why I’d start with a blanket ban.

  5. These relationships do not have to be abusive or predatory to be in breach of the basic obligation to treat all students equally and in a professional manner. I really wonder why so many people still seem to think the sky would fall if academics were not allowed to have sex with students. Other professionals deal with analogous restrictions, why should we be different? Btw I don’t think the attitude that it’s not ok to have intimate relationships with students is confined to a younger generation. I am a 63 year old academic who has been saying this publicly since I was 21. The people who have voted me down in committees considering this issue have not usually been older than me. In fact they have sometimes been student reps.

  6. A final year undergraduate enters a relationship with a first year undergraduate in the same department. Time goes by. They commence a PhD in that same department and do some PGTA work, and perhaps even find themselves asked to teach on a module their partner wants to take. What now?

  7. In April my wife and I will have been married 25 years. When we met she was a grad student and I was faculty member. We were both divorced, over age 40, and she had 5 kids and 1 grandchild. I’m not sure an absolute ban on staff-student relations would have been appropriate. Wouldn’t that really have infantalized her?

    But in general, I agree with the article!

  8. I am in my late 20s and a member of professional services staff in a University City in an otherwise very rural county. I am also Gay, single and dating in a largely rural community outside of the city, which is particular challenging. I am professional who performs a professional function for my employer. I have nothing to do with teaching, i have no responsibility for students or indeed any control over anything that relates to students. I feel like the article presents this from one perspective, and imagines that a relationship between a member of academic staff and a student, which i agree should be regulated or prohibited to some degree, and a sensible debate should be had on this, as other comments have indicated where to draw the line is a challenge, though a blanket ban does not seem sensible, as it lacks nuance.

    I do not feel a blanket ban takes into account my situation or indeed others in a similar situation, inevitable if one loads up a dating app, it will have students on it, and whilst i have no desire to date someone in their early 20s, conceivable their will be PhD Students and mature students who are a similar ages to me, and potentially share similar interests. Now their dating profiles may not have anything saying they are a student on it, if we have a conversation and go on a date, have I broken such a ban on staff student relations. Arguable yes, if so how is this fair on either of us? I am employed to do a professional role, i could easily do this role for a number of firms in the local area, my employer happens to be the University, that is the only connection to the Student. I have no power over their grades, assignments, or indeed anything to do with them. It feels like we need to have a more nuance conversation about this, and look at this from a range of perspectives, rather than a blanket approach of ban all staff and student relationships.

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