Should sexual and romantic relationships between staff and students be prohibited? (Yes)

Anna Bull

21 Feb 2020

UCL has recently implemented a new policy prohibiting sexual and romantic relationships between staff and students where there is a direct teaching relationship. To our knowledge, they are one of only a few higher education institutions in the UK to do this, the others being Roehampton University, University of Greenwich, and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. By contrast, in the US there has been a move in recent years towards prohibiting all relationships between faculty (academic staff) and undergraduate students, and between faculty and postgraduate students where there is a teaching relationship. This move by UCL could be seen as the first in a shift towards the UK following US practice in this area, as well as reflecting the heightened awareness of gendered power imbalances that the #MeToo movement is engendering.

We strongly welcome UCL’s new policy. In particular, it is helpful in that it provides a lot more detail on implementation and on professional boundaries than existing policies in this area. If this policy had been in place over recent years, many abuses of power that we are aware of could have been identified or prevented, or at least been addressed much more quickly and effectively once disclosed. The policy can help to reduce the ability for staff to take advantage of the blurred boundaries between themselves and students, by specifying the types of behaviours that students should not expect. This in turn enables students to have greater knowledge of what is acceptable practice in their learning environments. One example of this, of several that are outlined in the policy, is that where there is a direct teaching relationship staff should ‘refrain from contacting students outside of reasonable working hours’. This has the advantage of also addressing controlling and bullying behaviours from staff towards PhD students, by for example calling them at night or during the weekend, and expecting students to be always available and receptive to such communication.

Critics might argue that the teaching and learning relationship in higher education is a personal as well as a professional relationship and that such stipulations may infringe on pedagogical creativity . I’d argue that it is precisely because learning can be such an exciting, emotional experience that clarity is needed around acceptable and appropriate behaviours. Passionate, engaged teaching can and should exist within the parameters of respecting students’ private lives and avoiding controlling behaviours.

A further criticism is that this policy could be used to control and police staff even further. This is a legitimate concern, and given that state of antagonism between university management and staff at the moment, highlighted by the UCU strike, it is understandable that staff might be concerned. However, we see this as a balancing act; there are abuses of power occurring frequently by staff towards students, and therefore the institution needs the power to act to stop these. The institution itself needs to be scrutinised to check they are not abusing this power; HE institutions are not benign and will misuse power. For this reason we hope that UCL report publicly on the implementation of this policy, as it is doing in relation to complaints of sexual misconduct more generally. We also need more transparency and accountability across the sector as a whole, but it is a knotty policy problem trying to figure out how to do this while retaining the autonomy of individual institutions and avoiding the creation of performative forms of bureaucracy.

In the sector more widely, as noted in our 2018 report Silencing Students, many universities do now ‘strongly discourage’ sexual and romantic relationships between staff and students, but some (looking at you, University of Manchester) still have what is effectively a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy: ‘The University does not wish to prevent liaisons between staff and students and it relies upon the integrity of both parties to ensure that abuses of power do not occur.’

Why is this a problem? First of all, it seems that students themselves would rather have clearer professional boundaries and not have to worry about ‘predatory’ staff asking them out or coming onto them. 80% of the current student respondents (n=1535) and even more of the alumni responses in our 2018 study with the National Union of Students Women’s Campaign were uncomfortable with staff having sexual or romantic relationships with students. This figure was higher for women than men students, perhaps because women students are more likely to be targeted by staff sexual misconduct (National Union of Students, 2018) and women students are more aware of the risk of sexual violence or harassment more generally, through being more likely to experience it throughout their lives (Ministry of Justice, 2013). We would strongly encourage universities in the UK to survey their own student population and find out if this figure is the same on their campuses , as well as to carry out discussions on this topic with students from different identity groups (please email anna.bull@port.ac.uk for a copy of the survey instrument).

If students (on the whole) want clearer boundaries, then that is enough of an argument in itself to prohibit such relationships. But just as compelling is the argument around risk of abusive relationships. As Hester and Donovan note (2015) risk factors for abuse in relationships are age, lower income, and lower educational status (Donovan and Hester, 2015, 101). In relation to age, both an age difference between partners (where a larger age difference increases the risk of abusive relationships occurring) and being under 25 means someone is at higher risk of experiencing abusive relationships. All of these factors would be at play in most staff-student relationships. Professor Nicole Westmarland’s (2017) review of the University of Sussex’s handling of a case where a lecturer was convicted of domestic violence offences against a student, Allison Smith, in 2016, makes some hugely important recommendations by framing staff-student sexual relationships in relation to the risk of abuse. In the UCL policy, if a relationship is declared that is not within a direct teaching and learning relationship, it is subject to a ‘conflict of interest management plan’. One point that is not mentioned in the policy is that it is crucial important it is that staff who formulate and monitor such plans – which under UCL’s policy is HR staff and student services staff – need to have some knowledge of the dynamics of abusive relationships in order to be aware of situations such as this. More generally, across the sector, much higher levels of knowledge, as well as employing specialist expert staff, is urgently needed to guide institutional responses to address sexual misconduct, as Professor Westmarland highlights in her review.

Even with UCL’s new policy, there is still a danger that students can lose out on specialist teaching and be at risk of abusive relationships. As described in Silencing Students, one interviewee, given the pseudonym Alice, got into a relationship with her PhD supervisor that she was uncomfortable about:

I remember, my supervisor arranged this meeting and I insisted on being there. The Head of the Department came in and my supervisor said, “Oh me and Alice have decided to be in a relationship.” And the Head of the Department said, “Oh congratulations.” I really think at that point the Head of the Department should have taken me into a separate room and said, “What’s going on?” No one from the department ever insisted or even really tried to talk to me out of earshot of my supervisor. So, the whole thing, it was like, and the only people who were talking at this meeting were him – my supervisor – and my Head of Department. I was sat there, and at one point I tried to speak, and they just ignored me. […] Even at the time what struck me was that no one was asking me, and I was like, “Hello, hello, hello.” (in Bull and Rye, 2018, p.16)

Alice’s department did indeed have a policy that faculty could not supervise students they were in a relationship with, she was moved to a different supervisor, outside of her specialism, and was given no support to get out of this relationship. This situation might  potentially still occur under UCL’s new policy. Under Professor Westmarland’s recommendations, Alice would have had a chance to speak confidentially to someone about the relationship and could have shared her concerns that it was not fully consensual, or that she had reservations as to what was occurring. Alice did try to raise her concerns with other lecturers within her department but they all saw the relationship as a great romance, failing to, or actually choosing not to consider issues of power or to ask Alice for her perspective.

Another interviewee in the Silencing Students report, who I’ll call Helen, got into an abusive relationship with a lecturer in her department who was not involved in teaching or supervising her (2018, p.12). Helen also tried to raise concerns informally with colleagues and other members of staff but no-one recognised what she was trying to say – and of course the dynamics of an abusive relationship are such that the person in the relationship may also struggle to recognise and label what is occurring. This example shows that the risk to students who are not in a direct teaching or learning relationship with staff must also be taken seriously.

Higher education has a lot to learn about professional boundaries from other sectors where these issues have been discussed in much more detail. For example, Clapton’s (2013) reflections on producing professional boundaries guidance for social work emphasises the importance of ongoing reflection and discussion, and Cooper’s (2012) discussion describes boundary awareness as a skill that needs to be developed where ‘each situation needs to be judged on its own merits’ rather than formulating ‘a rule book that covers every possible situation’ (p.13). The Clinic for Boundary Studies has produced some excellent publications in this area, and we understand, does training for higher education institutions. We would also strongly recommend Rape Crisis South London for training in this area, as a gendered perspective on power imbalances, abusive relationships, and sexual violence, is crucial for prevention and response.

Higher education institutions aren’t going to be able to dodge this issue much longer. Outside of higher education, the direction of travel is for workplaces to prohibit relationships between employees where there is a line management relationship or a power imbalance. The most high profile example of this recently is MacDonald’s boss Steve Easterbrook being fired for a relationship with an employee. A much more sophisticated social awareness is currently being developed about the role of power within sexual situations, and very slowly – more slowly than other sectors – we are seeing higher education responding to this shift.

But what about true love? you might ask. True love might strike, it’s true. However, if the relationship breaks up (which even with true love, does happen), it is the student – rather than the staff member – who is highly vulnerable, in their studies as well as personally. We do recognise that some HE staff reading this might be in relationships with students, or readers might be students in relationships with staff, who experience them to be equitable. Maybe there have even been break-ups where it hasn’t negatively impacted on either person’s job or studies. What I’d emphasise here is that a policy such as UCL’s is designed to recognise that there is a heightened risk of abuse of power in such relationships and to work as a prevention mechanism before a relationship starts. However, we do think it’s reasonable to ask staff members, where they meet students in the course of their professional role, to prioritise the teaching relationship over personal relationships for its duration – as other professionals such as doctors, social workers, and therapists are required to do.

With thanks (again) to the interviewees from Silencing Students who generously and courageously shared their experiences in order to help make change across the sector.

References

Bull, A., Rye, R., 2018. Silencing students: institutional responses to staff sexual misconduct in higher education. The 1752 Group/University of Portsmouth. https://1752group.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/silencing-students_the-1752-group.pdf

Clapton, K., 2013. Developing professional boundaries guidance for social workers. The Journal of Adult Protection 15, 37–44.

Cooper, F., 2012. Professional Boundaries in Social Work and Social Care: A Practical Guide to Understanding, Maintaining and Managing Your Professional Boundaries. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Donovan, C., Hester, M., 2015. Domestic violence and sexuality. Policy Press, Bristol.

Ministry of Justice, Home Office, Office for National Statistics, 2013. An Overview of Sexual Offending in England & Wales.

National Union of Students, 2018. Power in the academy: staff sexual misconduct in UK higher education https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/nus-staff-student-sexual-misconduct-report

Westmarland, N., 2017. Independent Review into The University of Sussex’s Response to Domestic Violence. University of Sussex. https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=westmarland-review.pdf&site=303