Credit: AJ Duncan

The University should ban student-staff relationships

By Niamh Flanagan

The University of Oxford has become amongst the first UK higher education institutions to ban intimate relationships between staff and students – and Niamh Flanagan argues the University of Glasgow should follow suit.

The University of Oxford has this month announced a ban on intimate relationships between staff members and students, following examples set by the University of Nottingham and University College London. Previously, student-staff relationships had been permitted as long as they were disclosed  to a relevant line manager. In the case of existing relationships, the University of Oxford will seek to prohibit conflict of interests by ensuring staff members do not possess any responsibility toward students they are engaged in relationships with.

At the current moment the vast majority of UK universities permit student-staff relationships, implementing conditions similar to the ones in place at Oxford preceding the ban. The University of Glasgow policy on student-staff relationships is as such: 

“Where students are over the age of 18, intimate relationships between staff and students are strongly discouraged in cases where there is a professional connection or proximity between the member of staff and the student; for example where the member of staff teaches or supervises in the same School or RI as the student.  It is recognised that in some cases, there is little, or no, power imbalance between a member of staff and student, and in such cases the University would not wish to prevent relationships.  This may apply where individuals work and study in different Colleges, or to staff in early career roles.”

As such, the rationale for not implementing a complete ban appears to be based upon the assumption that as long as students are not actively taught by staff members, or where there are minimal age differences, power imbalances are marginal or non-existent and relationships  should be allowed to occur. Of course, it is entirely possible for a lecturer, many of whom are also in their twenties, to meet an older student in a context outside of the University, and engage in a relationship that would be deemed perfectly healthy had the staff member been employed anywhere else. In 2022, The Glasgow Guardian revealed that 10 intimate student staff relationships had been disclosed at the University of Glasgow over a five year period, and within all of those relationships, the students had been studying at postgraduate level – suggesting that they were aged at least 21 or older. 

At first glance, then, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the current UofG policy on student-staff relationships is largely fit for purpose; relatively few relationships are declared, and in no circumstances are students under the age of 21 engaged in relationships with staff members. However, it is my view that the efficacy of the policy hinges on two flawed assumptions, and as such is inadequate in its potential to safeguard students. 

Firstly, in defining the kind of student-staff relationships in which there exists little or indeed no power imbalance, the University makes an admission about the kind of relationships where significant power imbalances definitely do exist: where a member of staff works in the same faculty that a student may study in, holds responsibility for assessing or teaching a student, or indeed where considerable age differences do exist. Whilst “strongly discouraging” such relationships, there is no material prohibition of their existence or disciplinary procedures in place for staff members who engage in them. If the University can recognise the power imbalances inherent to such relationships, why does their policy not reflect this? To “strongly discourage” is not sufficient – university staff are in positions of unique power and influence over their students, often as professionals in fields of research they are idolised by students of  said field, who, although legal adults, are not immune to manipulation, exploitation and coercion. I’d also argue that the characterisation of relationships where the student and staff members belong to different faculties, or where a smaller age difference exists, as containing minimal risk of power imbalance is flawed. It ignores the esteem with which lecturers and professors are universally held by the student population, regardless of whether a direct teaching relationship exists,  and provides far too vague a framework by which “acceptable” age gaps are defined. Staff at universities encounter young people often at extremely transformative stages of their personal development, who are seeking encouragement and guidance with regards to their personal and academic development. Staff members have the ability, regardless of whether or not they directly teach students, to influence their personal development, career prospects and academic outcomes. In such a context, the dynamics of consent and power become extremely blurred, exacerbated by considerable age differences but not exclusive to them. As such, the assertion that power imbalances can be minimised is a tenuous one, and holds the potential to allow harmful and damaging relationships to continue at the detriment of the safety and mental wellbeing of students. 

Secondly, the decision to permit staff-student relationships provided that they are declared fundamentally ignores a key point – staff who opt to declare relationships with students are very likely to have good intentions, and are far less likely to come forward with information about visibly inappropriate relationships where elements of coercion or exploitation are present. For students engaged in undeclared relationships, this policy could act to dissuade them from coming forward with concerns about abusive or harmful behaviours as they may fear of the repercussions for their partner for not disclosing the relationship, or indeed be put under pressure by said partner to not disclose the existence of the relationship. The efficacy of the policy is entirely dependent upon the honesty of staff members, but the uncomfortable reality is that virtually all relationships that originate unethically, via grooming, coercion, or manipulation will never be declared, for obvious reasons, rendering the safeguarding measures implemented once relationships are declared redundant. This approach therefore does nothing to support the most vulnerable students engaged in student-staff relationships, and in fact holds the potential to isolate such students from support further. 

There may be an exceptional minority of cases in which staff-student relationships exist outside of harmful and inappropriate power dynamics, completely safeguarded from negative risks to the wellbeing of students. However, the potential existence of such relationships does not justify an overly vague, problematically implemented policy that ultimately fails to protect students. Following the example set by the University of Oxford would provide a framework through which both student and staff understand clearly defined guidelines of appropriate conduct, and students could trust that in instances where misconduct occurs, there are definitive procedures designed to hold those in power accountable. The higher education sector needs to take action on these issues, to create safer and better regulated learning environments for future generations of students. 


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