Our take on the new OfS consultation

Last month, Office for Students (Ofs), the higher education regulator for England, launched a consultation on whether to make the tackling of sexual misconduct a condition of registration for all higher education institutions. As we wrote last week in a Twitter thread, while we welcome change, we hold some serious concerns around the proposed approaches. In short, the OfS are proposing requiring higher education institutions (HEIs) to either (a) require staff to declare any relationships with students and to keep these on an internal register, or (b) to prohibit these relationships outright. The latter would be a significant change.

A handful of HEIs already outright prohibit student-staff relationships. Many others currently go as far as requiring staff to declare them, and some of these will take disciplinary action against staff – including for gross misconduct – for the failure to declare. Others, like the University of Manchester, have a way to go. The UoM’s Consensual Relationships Policy still states that ‘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.’ We called out this phrasing and general approach in our 2018 report Silencing Students as hugely problematic given that it puts the onus on the person who may be experiencing abuse to ensure the abuse doesn’t happen. Either of the proposals from the OfS would make some difference in this area. However, our view is that this choice is about the lesser of two evils; both have their flaws.

First, we must ask what students themselves want. We surveyed 1535 students in 2018 and in our report, Power in the Academy, compiled with the NUS Women’s Campaign, we reported that 80% of respondents were uncomfortable with staff having sexual or romantic relationships with students. Women were more likely to be uncomfortable with such relationships than men. Our forthcoming article in the Journal of FHE includes further analysis on this data set. For example, we find no difference between postgraduate and undergraduate students. We repeated this survey at a UK post-92 institution in 2020 and found that 75% of students were uncomfortable with sexual/romantic relationships with staff, and again, women were more likely to feel uncomfortable (this research is unpublished but please contact anna.bull@york.ac.uk for the findings). It’s clear that the majority of students would support the ‘prohibit relationships’ position. From the data, this appears as a clear cut case. The other major advantage of this approach is it communicates a very clear message on boundaries and the unacceptability of staff making sexual/romantic approaches to students. This would be helpful and very meaningful for many survivors.

However, our major concern is that such a ban would drive relationships underground, and put students in such relationships even more at risk. Let’s face it – such relationships, including hook-ups, are going to happen regardless of whether they’re prohibited or not. You can imagine a student in such a relationship coming under intense pressure from the staff member to keep the relationship secret, preventing them from reaching out for help if the relationship becomes controlling, abusive, or they just want to break up without repercussions for their studies. Let’s not forget that the more axes of inequality there are within a relationship (age, professional status, class, gender, etc.) the more likely it is to be abusive, as Donovan and Hester outline.

So let’s be clear – prohibiting staff-student relationships would be a comms piece rather than bringing about actual change. It could be a very powerful message, and it would be very meaningful to many survivors of staff-student sexual misconduct or abusive relationships, but it’s not going to ‘solve’ the problem. To take the ‘set up a register’ option (and to be clear, this is unis setting up their own registers, not a national one). The main advantage of this is that if a relationship is not declared, then the uni has a mandate to take disciplinary action against the staff member.

On the other hand, the proposal for HEIs to simply be required to hold a register of relationships effectively sends the message that these relationships are OK, meaning staff can continue to make sexual advances to students, i.e. sexual harassment, knowing that this is ‘acceptable’, and that sexual harassment can be very difficult to prove in a complaint. And then what happens? Unfortunately, it’s pretty unusual for HR staff to have training in gender-based violence, so they’re unlikely to be able to recognise the signs of a controlling relationship even if it is declared to them. You can imagine this experience – included in Silencing Students – still happening (and to be clear, this was a relationship that was deeply harmful to the student):

It’s clear from this account that the proposal for HEIs to hold a relationships register will only make a difference if HEIs see such relationships not (only) in terms of a conflict of interest but also as a domestic abuse risk. We don’t have faith that universities are able to do this. (We discuss these two framings in our forthcoming article in JFHE, ‘Professional boundaries between faculty/staff and students in UK higher education: students’ levels of comfort with personal and sexualised interactions’ – please contact anna.bull@york.ac.uk for a pre-publication copy.)

What’s more, with either of these options, there’s a serious risk that HEIs will be more likely to take disciplinary action against staff in marginalised/precarious positions. However, as we outlined in this thread with Sara Ahmed, we must engage with institutional policies through activism. We’re going to have to be vigilant in supporting colleagues who might be targeted by the institution. But given what survivors are telling us about how they need something in place in this area, this is not enough of a reason to reject these proposals outright.

Ultimately, the reality of the impact is going to depend on the culture of the institution, how much will there is from leadership to listen to students about what they need, and whether relevant staff have appropriate training. Our conclusion is that while prohibiting relationships would send a clear message, and be in line with what students seem to want, there are still major risks with this approach, and we need much more expertise on GBV in HR and academic staff in order for this to be safe. We’ll respond to the consultation and will share our response publicly when we do.

Dr Anna Bull