Campaign urges universities to ban staff-student relationships

1752 Group works with branches of the University and College Union to pressure institutions to go further than OfS proposals

February 8, 2024
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Campaigners have called for more universities to introduce their own bans on staff-student relationships after the English regulator stopped short of mandating such a move for the whole sector.

The 1752 Group – which aims to end staff sexual misconduct in higher education – is working with branches of the University and College Union (UCU) to pressure institutions into going further than the register of relationships proposed by the Office for Students.

UCU members at the University of York recently passed a motion that calls for the university to change its policies so that staff are prohibited “from entering into intimate personal relationships with students where the staff member has responsibility for, or involvement in student’s study or pastoral support or is likely to in future”.

Intimate relationships are defined as “all sexual or romantic contact, whether in person and/or online or via means of other electronic communication, one-off or longer-term”.

A university spokesman said the policy was “under review and as part of that process we will be engaging with staff and students on this important issue”.

UCL and the universities of Oxford and Nottingham already have similar policies in place but last year the OfS opted for a different model when it outlined how it intends to regulate universities on harassment and sexual misconduct.

Plans that were put out for consultation in February 2023 – which the OfS is expected to respond to imminently – would see instead staff required to declare all such relationships and institutions to keep a record of these in a register.

Anna Bull, a senior lecturer in education and social justice at York and director of research for 1752, said this does not go far enough.

“Our ongoing research and activism on staff-student sexual harassment in higher education shows that students are often unable to get effective action taken when this occurs,” she said.

“Prohibiting staff from entering into intimate personal relationships with students over whom they have current or future teaching or pastoral responsibilities will mean that students can more easily raise concerns about unwelcome or unwarranted sexual or romantic approaches, as this behaviour will clearly constitute misconduct.”

Dr Bull said the group felt that a register would be “entirely ineffective”, as institutions do not have the expertise or systems to be able to manage it.

Institutions may be empowered to take a stronger position if they felt that staff were on board with it, she added, and one way of demonstrating this was via the UCU, the country’s biggest higher education union.

The group has called for other union branches to pass motions like the one supported by York and has produced a guide for activists.

“This kind of policy is, of course, only one tiny piece in the broader work that is required to tackle sexism, gender inequality and gender-based violence and harassment in higher education,” Dr Bull said.

“Nevertheless, this policy shift would make a difference in preventing and addressing staff-student sexual misconduct.”

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