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Should student-staff relationships be allowed at universities?

Back in February this year, University College London became the first Russel Group and one of three UK universities to explicitly prohibit intimate relationships between staff and students. Described to The Guardian by the 1752 group’s Dr Anna Bull as “the most stringent” policy on staff student relations, many have called upon other universities to follow UCL’s example and begin to implement similar policies that help to safeguard against abuses of power within higher education.

The policy sees the explicit prohibition of relations between staff and students they have as a “direct responsibility for, or involvement in, that student’s academic studies and/or personal welfare’’. This requirement also discloses any relationships with any students who do not fall into this category. Furthermore, it prohibits intimate relationships with students they are academically involved in who are under the age of 18 or known to be at risk of financial, sexual or criminal coercion, such as those with disabilities, mental health issues or other circumstances that make them more vulnerable.

In the eyes of the law, these relationships are accepted, which explains why so few universities have policies to stop them from emerging. Due to the majority of university students being 18 or over, sexual relationships between staff and students are ones where the younger party is deemed able, in theory, to give their informed and willing consent. However, morally these relationships stand up less well. Staff could have an adverse influence over the degree progression, and subsequently the career trajectory, of a student they were seeing. The emotional could affect the professional and could end up pushing students towards an undeserving First or seeing a personal fight turn into the sinking of a degree grade.

Staff could have an adverse influence over the degree progression, and subsequently the career trajectory, of a student they were seeing

But more importantly, beyond the world of academia and the potential conflicts relationships of this nature could bring, students still exhibit vulnerabilities. All the freedoms and struggles attached to coming to university –  being newly separated from parents, forming new friendships, balancing a budget and exploring sexuality and relations – can be seen to open students up to different types of insecurities.  

With teaching academics being more mature in terms of age, intellect and general life experience, they would automatically wield power over a student they entered into an intimate relationship with. Gender and even potentially race could also enter into these power dynamics too. All of these imbalances not only open up the relationship to physical and mental abuse, but potentially act to detriment students in any accusations that they may later be put forward due to societal biases. Patriarchal structures, misogyny, racism, ageism and rape culture can all be seen to act to prevent students from receiving justice if on reflection they feel coerced into a relationship or are victims of abuse.

Popular culture has contributed to decades of the desensitisation of this type of relationship. Television shows such as Friends, Gossip Girl and Dear White People  fall into this category. Portrayed as forbidden (although not illegal), secretive and subsequently exciting, they can be viewed to act as a backbone to this type of relationship and romanticise an abuse of power. Furthermore, with the majority of these on screen relations seeing an older male teacher and a younger female student there is also a gendered element to these presentations, normalising these types of sexual advances and relationship thus reinforcing gendered power dynamics too. With there evidently no move from the media industry to remove these relationships from our screens, it is up to universities to provide the mainframe to stop their reproduction in real life. 

Portrayed as forbidden (although not illegal), secretive and subsequently exciting, television shows which display student-staff relationships can be viewed to act as a glorification of abuse of power

Although back in 2018, the results of a National Union of Students and 1752 Group survey found that participants were unable to find a conclusive agreement upon where the boundaries between student staff relations lay, the theme of the abuse of power was a reoccurring one. With universities already criticized for failing to protect students against sexual harassment and abuse from other students, it is concerning that they are not safeguarding students from those under their employment.

62% of 4500 surveyed students from 153 universities in the UK reported being sexually harassed at university. Only 2% of those who had experienced harassment were satisfied with the process and result of their case. It is clear that universities are struggling to convey messages of respect and consent to students, and through facilitating staff student relations they fail to explicitly tell staff that making sexual comments, advances and initiating relationships is inappropriate. This is not only due to the fact everyone should be awarded respect and a right to feel safe, but due to power awarded to them by their authority over students. Because of this, students are opened up to the potential of another avenue of unwanted sexual attention that is well within the control of university policy.

In regard to Warwick’s policy on staff student relations, the university falls into the group of 97 universities who do hold some sort of policy upon these types or relationships. But staff are only ‘strongly advised’ not to enter into relationships as they ‘lead to a lack of confidence in the integrity of due process’ and ‘have a detrimental effect on the teaching and learning environment’. Furthermore, ‘exceptional circumstances’ mean that students are able to take modules by an academic they are having a relationship with provided their academic work and feedback is not marked by this academic. Placed under it’s ‘Personal Conflict of Interest’ policy, the university recognises the power wielded by staff over students in an academic sense, however it fails to prohibit an abuse of power from taking place in the first place. When contacted by The Boar Features for comment on this policy, the university stated that “the  policy has been  under review.  Clearly the recent lockdown has delayed the completion of the full review process  but the review is  likely to be fully complete and implemented during the  2020/2021 academic year if agreed”. 

Arguments could be made that the personal lives of staff and students are not the concern of an academic institution. Yet there is equally a strong belief that student safety and wellbeing must be a priority for universities and they should ensure protection from any form of abuse and coercion. Universities should be aiming to foster not only the growth of their students as academics but teaching them life skills. By not demonstrating relationships with clearly well-known power imbalances as inappropriate, it can be seen to feed into a continuance of workplace harassment.

Some may argue that the personal lives of staff and students are not the concern of an academic institution

UCL is at the forefront of this type of policy in the UK and similar measures are being introduced to campuses across the globe. The Ivy League’s Harvard, Princeton and Yale can be seen to have introduced equally strong policies as well as Monash University in Australia. The moves from these universities could ignite change in educational institutions across the world. Even if universities themselves may not see this as a need to change policy, it may signify to students everywhere that protection is possible and something they could advocate for. 

Regardless of whether students are attracted to academics who teach them, it is hard to see if any relationship will never start on an equal basis and the power imbalances leave students wide open to coercion, dependency and abuse that is entirely avoidable. Age may be but a number, but it provides power and so do positions of authority. 

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