Should universities ban staff-student relationships?

As several UK universities outlaw sex between academics and students, two writers offer differing views on the Office for Students’ proposed ban

August 3, 2023
Two Swans on a misty lake forming a heart shape with a reflection in the water to illustrate Should universities ban staff-student relationships?
Source: Getty images

A ban on ‘sexualised behaviour’ would be more or less a ban on life as we know it

We must start with confessions. When I was a student, I spent a lot of time with academics. I got drunk with academics and was more formally wined and dined by them. I went on holiday with faculty (in the Alpine chalet used by three Oxford colleges). And, yes, I was seduced by them.

When I was a young lecturer living on campus, I played sport with students, got drunk with students and made love with students. All of this seemed entirely normal on the campus of a new university in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Do I consider myself to have been either harassed or harmed by any of my student experiences? No. Do I consider myself to have harmed or harassed students? Again, no. I fully concede that others might have felt differently, but circumstantial evidence suggests that this isn’t the case: thanks to 21st-century technology, I am still in touch with a majority of those with whom I was intimate. They are all very friendly. That is even true, most days, of the woman I have been married to for 48 years.

To many people, including me, these liaisons felt like emancipation from the world our parents had lived in. There were dangers, of course, and not everybody gained from the new rules – certainly not to an equal degree. But my reality was of educational, emancipatory relationships with older people in the context of the university.

Yet there is an alternative version of staff-student relations. It is to be found in the Office for Students’ (OfS) Consultation on a new approach to regulating harassment and sexual misconduct in English higher education, published in February and whose findings will follow later this year. Potentially problematic “personal relationships” between staff and students are divided into three categories: “physical intimacy”, “romantic or emotional intimacy” and “financial dependence”. This concerns “any member of staff…who has direct or indirect responsibilities, or other direct professional responsibilities, for a student”.

On “romantic intimacy”, I would be intrigued to know how long a debate you could have on its meaning. And I cannot pass over the word “professional” without comment. I used to object when anyone referred to academic employees as “professionals” because university life lacks the defining criteria of professionalism: common norms and purposes, specific entry criteria and so on. It is about vocation and community, Gemeinschaft rather than Gesellschaft. I taught and wrote with no qualification or training to do either.

Several important and difficult questions are unavoidable when I compare my own experiences to the OfS’ recommendations – particularly its call for “mandatory training for all students”, preferably discursive and in-person, to help them identify “sexualised behaviour from staff”.

Of course, serious sexual assault and stalking are appalling and can ruin lives, but I’ve found that universities are fairly effective at dealing with those suspected of outright predatory behaviour. It seems the OfS is focused on stamping out the non-criminal “sexualised behaviour” which, according to a 2018 survey by the National Union of Students cited by the OfS, is experienced by 41 per cent of students.

Those levels sound horrifying, but it’s worth noting that that report isn’t just talking about groping, lewd comments or unwanted sexual advances but also “lower level, boundary-blurring behaviours” perceived to have sexual overtones. Would that include jokes or genuine compliments taken in the wrong spirit?

Such misunderstanding can usually be cleared up, but things become more complicated when concepts such as “harassment” and “sexualised behaviour” must be defined and then regulated.

For instance, two people can behave in the same way and the action can have different meanings for the recipient. My most vivid example is about university staff rather than students. Professor A, long established in the department, could go into the office where the secretaries worked and address them by endearments such as “precious” and “petal” and they adored him. Professor B, newly arrived, perhaps trying to fit in with what he saw as the informal mores of the department, behaved in a similar way, but succeeded only in eliciting comments along the lines of “That guy gives me the creeps”. There was an attempt to have procedures taken against him. Professor A was regarded as “eccentric”, “lovable”, “avuncular” and highly amusing. When he died, far too young, former students recounted at his memorial event how he had variously shouted at them and cuddled them and they’d loved him for it.


A ban on “sexualised behaviour” – when so broadly defined and open to interpretation – would be more or less a ban on life as we know it. At least, it would be for my generation and most generations, though not perhaps the Victorians, with their stern love of respectability.

The consequences for university teaching could be huge, even for how students interact within the classroom. Undergraduates are already guarded when discussing difficult texts or subjects because meanings and messages are extraordinarily complicated and what is received is routinely different from what is sent. When I was teaching in an increasingly international university, most of the male English students were very sensitive, particularly to female students from different cultures. Unfortunately, this often meant never engaging in debate with them, even ignoring them completely. One Japanese student told me she wanted to relate to anybody in the robust, informal way that she saw male and female English students treating each other. Could snippets of conversation from this kind of relaxed discussion be construed as “sexualised”? It’s possible if you had a mind to think this way.

That concern about how regulations might affect free speech is acknowledged in the OfS’ consultation. One might wonder if “normal” or “natural” speech is really what we’re addressing. It isn’t very clear about the location of the tension, but I can furnish a clear example. I gave a lecture on the idea of coercion that was illustrated by the history of the law of rape. It was written in consultation with a member of the law faculty, and it concentrated on the Victorian period, which defined the offence as sex that occurs as the result of “force, fear or fraud”. It was a very good way, I thought, of illustrating the extreme difficulty, in some cases, of distinguishing between being “made” to do something and choosing to do it.

After the lecture, two female students came to me to complain; their objection was not to anything I’d said, but rather to “a man talking about rape”. I was impressed with the fact that they had come to me rather than reporting me to some third party and agreed to canvass the other students (who didn’t see a problem). But it was a sign of changing times and expectations.

So I think attempts to regulate physical or emotional relations between staff and students in a university are conceptually weak and largely impractical. They also commit an error of self-fulfilment. If you insist on seeing anything as a problem, it becomes one. Food and drink are problems for those who see them as such, and so are “personal relationships”.

The consultation document leans towards a requirement to register relationships rather than banning certain kinds, mainly physical. I dread to think what my register would have looked like as a young academic living on campus.

If the OfS really wants to tackle abuses of power and potential conflicts of interests, as it explains, then a simpler answer is available: no academic should assess students whom they teach, and marking should be anonymised. For decades, in England, at least, a principle of university life was the separation of teaching and examination so that the “power imbalances”, which are now thought to exist, were not considered to be a problem.

If contemporary universities went back to doing things properly, many problems would diminish or disappear. We used to be all on the same side, and we should be again.

Lincoln Allison is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Warwick.

A ban is needed because of the power dynamic, which is ripe for abuse

Almost all UK universities now have policies in place that discourage relationships between staff and students. The University of Exeter has banned staff-student relationships outright, and UCL, the University of Nottingham and the University of Oxford have set out a “partial” ban based on power dynamics, specifically related to staff and the students they teach, supervise and provide pastoral support for.

Some might wonder whether such rules are really required. Student-staff relationships are assumed to be rare, and some might instinctively recoil from the idea of an employer – or any institution – policing relationships between fully consenting adults.

I used to feel this way, but I learned the hard way about the damage caused by staff-student relationships, having once upon a time been groomed by a charming academic who taught me during my undergraduate studies.

I have written about this story elsewhere, but the short version is that we did eventually date and he went on to supervise my PhD. We broke up a few months into my doctoral studies because I was unhappy with the secret nature of our relationship and his refusal to let me change supervisors. He, meanwhile, made it clear that I could never tell anyone about our relationship history or he would ruin my academic career: “No one will ever take you seriously, and your PhD will be worthless,” he said. This left me trapped with him as my PhD supervisor and ex-boyfriend rolled into one, a particularly ghastly situation when he began dating my second supervisor.

Duck fighting another duck to illustrate A ban is needed because of the power dynamic, which is ripe  for abuse
Getty Images

It wasn’t until a few years after my PhD that I realised the severity of what had happened. Even then, I did not feel able to tell anyone, and instead wrote an anonymous story to contribute to the wider discussion around misconduct in academia. There was no recourse for justice because we had both left the university where I undertook my PhD, and there had been no policy around relationships between staff and students at the time we dated.

Even today, there is not much I can do to raise my concerns around his behaviour because there is no national policy under which I could report him. I’m not alone, of course – only one in 10 respondents to a recent 1752 Group study who had experienced staff sexual misconduct had reported it to their institution.

But such misconduct is not rare. A recent investigation by the University of Bristol’s student paper, Epigram, found that some staff members are quite brazen about their intentions, with students reporting being targeted on dating apps that allow users to set an age preference. Tutors boasted about having sex with students when first messaging them.

The investigation also found that secrecy is very often a condition of these relationships, a sign that tutors are aware that they are not unproblematic. One student expressed regrets about a past relationship with a staff member, stating: “I can’t see how someone of that age can have any genuine interest in someone of a much younger age.” This line of thinking is common, but it can take a while for students to come to this realisation.

Unfortunately, many students who have been in staff-student relationships report poor outcomes. These include changing their behaviour; skipping lectures, tutorials or supervisions; or dropping out of their course or even their university. Of those who reported experiencing sexual misconduct by a staff member in a 1752 Group/National Union of Students survey, Power in the Academy, 20 per cent reported losing confidence in themselves, slightly fewer experienced mental health problems, 16 per cent reported avoiding going to certain parts of campus, and 13 per cent felt unable to fulfil work roles at their institution. Considering that staff members engaging in sexual misconduct usually target more than one person, whether grooming or dating a different student each year, or harassing, stalking and threatening multiple students, the negative impact that one staff member can have is immense.

I’ve worked as an advocate in this area for five years, and I often hear shock around the scale of the issue. There are no UK-wide cohort studies, but the Power in the Academy report, which was published in 2018 and featured 1,829 students, painted a picture of “a highly sexualised higher education environment” where four in 10 students had experienced sexualised behaviour from staff at least once. Other countries face similar issues, with a 2016 Australian Human Rights Commission study encompassing 30,000 Australian students finding that 3 per cent of postgraduates and 1 per cent of undergraduate students were victims of staff-to-student misconduct. This would be equivalent to 85,800 UK students in a given academic year.

So I welcomed the OfS’ recent consultation on how universities should tackle staff-student sexual misconduct in academia. Sexual misconduct includes harassment, assault, grooming, coercion, bullying, sexual invitations and demands, comments, non-verbal communication, creation of atmospheres of discomfort, and promised resources in exchange for sexual access. That wide-ranging definition is required because “sexual misconduct” is a much broader category than sexual harassment and does not have the same legal standing. This is why the OfS is calling for higher education to essentially create its own regulations.

The two choices presented would either require staff to declare any relationships with students, a record of which would be kept on a register at every university, or prohibit these relationships outright. I want to make the case for the second option, albeit with a caveat: that a UK-wide ban would be partial and targeted at banning relationships between staff and the students they hold power over – for example, because they teach them, act as their personal tutor or supervise their dissertation or their PhD. This would not prevent, say, a gardener from dating a dentistry student.

The power dynamic between staff and the students they teach or supervise is ripe for abuse. The Power in the Academy report used the word “grooming” to describe members of staff using their positions of power to blur the boundaries between professional and personal relationships in order to gain sexual access to students. Examples of this kind of behaviour include arranging meetings off campus, singling out students for special attention, using social media to send private messages, buying dinner or drinks for students, or telling the student personal information about their marriage or sex life.

Banning relationships where a power dynamic is at play is not a silver bullet, but it would send a very strong signal to staff that such relationships are not acceptable. This would be particularly important for serial offenders, who can move institutions once they’re caught, even if they’re under investigation. As Al Jazeera revealed last year, this mid-investigation flight is a major policy gap for UK universities, allowing abusers to move around the academy. A ban would also most likely be popular with students, of whom about 80 per cent are uncomfortable with staff having romantic or sexual relationships with students. And a ban would make it much more straightforward for university HR teams and lawyers to act against staff who target students, potentially making it easier for students to report abuses.

major concern highlighted by the 1752 Group is that such a ban might drive relationships underground and put students in such relationships even more at risk. Staff members might put them under intense pressure to remain silent, preventing them from reaching out for help if the relationship becomes controlling or abusive, or if they want to break up without repercussions. To me, though, a ban is clearly the lesser of two evils because simply asking universities to keep a register sends an entirely different message: that such relationships are accepted. We also know that such registration policies are ineffective. Most universities already require staff to come forward about relationships, and yet staff continue to pursue students and engage in secret sexual relationships, as set out above.

Ultimately, what is needed is not just a ban but the change in culture that should come along with it. In that culture, academics would not be able to sexualise the learning space, to take students drinking and to blur the boundaries between education and “friendship”. Our students deserve a safe space where they can come to learn and form purely intellectual connections with staff.

The author is a senior lecturer at a Russell Group university.

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Reader's comments (5)

I respect Lincoln for his directness and honesty; but in response to "A ban on ‘sexualised behaviour’ would be more or less a ban on life as we know it", I'd have to say "so be it"/ bring it on! You mention "community" - which is based on rights and responsibilities. Surely a responsibility - in common with research ethics - is to cause no harm? As to men (male students) "never engaging in debate with women from a diffrent culture, even ignoring them completely"......that in itself is a form of social exclusion, and not a good plan for encouraging open debate! As to “a man talking about rape”, surely given rape by a male (on another male/ female) it is valid and important to hear male as well as female the spirit of fostering understanding. As to the allegation that "“power imbalances”, which are now thought to exist, were not considered to be a problem" back in the day....surely is a black mark against historic malpractice or blindness? Of course, given that we are all fallible humans, sexual relationships are almost bound to occur (between staff-students), BUT such links carry so many potential pitfalls.......secrecy and burden on mental health; manipulation of staff and/ or students by the other; dissent and discord fomented in a student group; rumour; gossip. And - correct me if I'm wroing but I am fairly sure that academic contracts, and policies from UCU etc specifically deter or prohibit staff-student romanic/ sexualised relationships. I am with the puritans on this one!! James 'Oliver Cromwell' (Derounian) NTF
This is a can of worms... especially when it presumes to make pronouncements on interpersonal relationships that would be quite acceptable in 'normal' society, but are just considered inappropriate when one partner is a student and the other an academic. In student days, the woman who lived in the room next door was fond of 'one-night stands' - some of her overnight guests were academics. Should they need to report such a fleeting consensual moment of intimacy? What about privacy issues? And what about the potential for abuse? False accusations of 'misbehaviour' are difficult to defend against.
Academics should not fraternise with students because, whichever way Lincoln packages it, there is a power dynamic and the student has very reduced bargaining power. Some might feel pressurised into joining an academic for drinks as a result of this dynamic. Should anything untoward happen to the student during such a social event, that academic is legally responsible. Rule of thumb: keep the boundaries very clear by not socialising with students. Will save you a world of grief when the 'me too' movement against staff (sexual) harassment begins.
I am particularly vexed by the comment above which proposes a ban on socialising with students. Some of the best experiences I had as an undergrad involved going down to the pub as a big group, usually after a research seminar, with staff, postgrads, and other undergrads. As a Ph.D. candidate I regularly went for lunch with my supervisor and other staff I knew well. At my current institution we had a staff student ceilidh last year which was a tremendous success Proposing a ban on all socialising with students is, in any case, not what is being proposed. Regarding the topic of the article, a ban on staff/student relationships will have no effect on relationships with abusive dynamics because these are, often, clandestine affairs in any case. I think we should go in exactly the opposite direction: - Insist that such relationships are public knowledge. It is far more difficult to abuse one's power in a climate of openess and honesty.
I see a proposed distinction between a faculty member having an intimate relationship with A student, and having a relationship with THEIR student. This makes sense. I strongly support the ban on intimate relationships between staff and their current students. In addition to the emotional and professional strain potentially placed on students who cannot change or escape their supervisor, or who are blindsided by any other dynamics arising from the professor's privilege or propensities, please consider the following. A student who is desired, seduced or groomed by a professor might be flattered and thrilled initially (power dynamic, intellectual sparks, sexual attraction) but is ultimately undermined in their studies by the loss of their right to judge or change their own success (or failure) on the merit of their work. This might be true regardless of whether the relationship ends well or badly. The "imposter syndrome" experienced by so many graduate students and faculty, especially women, is already a stress. The student's ability to flourish intellectually with focus and pride and to overcome that "syndrome" is potentially damaged by the complexities of the experience and this can leave lasting scars. As a graduate student I was careful never to cross that line with my professors and I am grateful that I kept that fence up because I never had to ask myself those questions. Bright young people should never have to wonder whether they did well (or badly, given how power dynamic and emotional stresses can work) for any reason aside from what they learned and what they achieved. Until our culture has eliminated sexism and homophobia, it is wrong to place that burden on students. Any staff who desires an intimate relationship with a student should have to relinquish their professional relationship with them.