Great Britain

'Abuse of power': should universities ban staff-student relationships?

Within weeks of starting her postgraduate degree, Allison Smith, then a student at Sussex University, entered a relationship with her lecturer. They had met at an induction party celebrating the new term with drinks and fireworks, where she found him “drunk and loud” but not inappropriate. He later approached her on Twitter. “That escalated quickly into flirtatious talk,” she says.

Her lecturer, Lee Salter, assured her that the university approved of the relationship and said it would be “fine as long as we were discreet”. She asked her friends if his behaviour was normal, to which they responded: “It’s not appropriate for someone who’s going to be teaching you on this course.”

But Smith was impressed by Salter’s intellect. “When he started talking about humanitarian work, activism, things I’m really interested in, he drew me in. From there I felt like I was blind to any other strange comments and behaviour,” she says. “It took some time to acknowledge that his behaviour was predatory and sleazy.”

The relationship steadily deteriorated when Salter’s controlling behaviour turned into physical violence. The 11-month relationship ended when Salter assaulted Smith, for which he received a 22-week prison sentence, suspended for 18 months in 2016. The university commissioned a review by Prof Nicole Westmarland, who warned that Sussex needed to “develop a clear policy” on staff-student relationships.

While most staff-student relationships won’t end in abuse, Smith’s experience raises questions around their inherent power imbalance. Although universities defend relationships between students and staff on grounds of personal freedom, experts on sexual misconduct warn that relationships where one party is in a position of power relative to the other, especially when there are significant age gaps, carry a higher risk of ending in abuse. They can also be problematic in other ways.

“[Students] are taking a course where the whole point is to learn from other people teaching them, and that didactic relationship exposes them to risk,” says Georgina Calvert-Lee, a senior partner at McAllister Olivarius, a law firm that has represented many victims of sexual misconduct at UK universities.

She identifies additional complications: other students might feel excluded from the advantages they perceive their peers in relationships with staff members to receive. And while most undergraduate students are adults, they are typically aged just 18-22.

The culture may be shifting: while many universities have introduced policies discouraging relationships between staff and students in recent years, University College London (UCL) recently became the UK’s third university – and the first in the Russell Group – to ban “personal and intimate relationships” between students and the lecturers who assess their work and provide pastoral support. UCL says this is to protect students from “potential abuse of power”, and address conflict of interest and confidentiality breaches. The move follows Greenwich, which introduced a total ban in 2018, and Roehampton’s similar ban in 2013. The Guardian understands at least one other university to be considering a ban.

Responding to UCL’s announcement, Anna Bull, a researcher at the 1752 Group, which campaigns against sexual misconduct in universities, wrote: “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.”

Rachel Fenton, a lecturer specialising in sexual violence at Exeter who is reviewing universities’ staff-student relationship policies, thinks that no such relationships should be allowed. “These may contain such an abuse of power that consent isn’t really there,” she explains.

Fenton says policies should send “a really clear symbolic and loudly publicised message that such relationships are prohibited – so they are not normalised and therefore not condoned.” This would enable others to report them, and for policies to be properly enforced and sanctions applied.

After her experience, Smith thinks that bans should be considered – or at the very least, the staff member and student should meet with the head of department to ensure the relationship is monitored. “If more people had been aware there would have been a point of contact to tell: ‘Actually, I’m not OK.’ There would have been more of a balance of power.”

Many university staff members share this interpretation. Becca Mavin entered into a relationship with a lecturer in his late 30s when she was studying at King’s College London in her early 20s. “The way I felt about it at the time is very different to how I feel now that I’m older. It seems way more inappropriate than it did.” She has since become a lecturer herself. “I realised how it was something I would never do or have done in that professional context,” she adds.

This view is echoed by Natasha Caruana, a lecturer at the University of the Arts London, who recently wrote an Instagram post explaining that she had resigned from her previous university after she criticised colleagues for their relationships with students. “I stood up for what I knew was the correct and ethical way of behaving,” she wrote. “There is a rich history of male academics having special friendships with female students (just Google it) and it won’t change until more of us call it out and put pressure on universities to change their policies.” (Her university, the University for the Creative Arts said: “We wholeheartedly reject the picture as presented in the social media post.”)

Yet the challenge in establishing the right approach to staff-student relationships is that lots do end happily. And there’s a spectrum: a lecturer in their 50s dating an 18-year-old student; a postgraduate student entering into a relationship with a postgraduate supervisor who could make or break their career; a mature student and a lecturer of a similar age with no responsibility for their teaching or assessment.

As such, a ban is often seen as an extreme approach. Steven Davis* entered into a relationship with a lecturer while a student, an arrangement he says was widespread at his university. “I believe we had a full right to enjoy a relationship and enjoy each other’s company,” he says. “Nobody was harmed or placed at any disadvantage.”

But universities may be out of step with their students’ expectations. The 1752 Group and the National Union of Students published a survey of 1,839 students in 2018 which found that four-fifths of students were uncomfortable with staff having relationships with students, which they described as “predatory”.

“If you allow sexual and romantic relationships then you’re allowing staff to make sexual and romantic approaches to students, and that can be seen as harassment,” explains Bull. She thinks that staff and student relationships have been normalised and romanticised through popular culture. Relationships are a common cultural trope in film and literature: for instance, in John Williams’s cult novel Stoner, JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, or Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man. “We’ve got to move away from that, think about what we want the professional relationship to look like, and learn from other areas like social work and medicine,” she says.

A Freedom of Information (FoI) request by the Guardian sent to 130 UK universities that received 122 responses showed that while 97 universities have policies in place – many of which have been introduced in the last decade – just 12 keep central records monitoring numbers. Instead, individual line managers are left to monitor relationships.

Ninety-five universities’ relationship policies request that staff and students disclose sexual and romantic relationships, yet just 31 were able to provide numbers. The FoI responses showed considerable variation across universities, ranging from zero relationships disclosed over the past three years, to 22 at Glasgow University since September 2018 (when its policy was introduced), making it likely that reporting procedures are not fit for purpose. Although most universities claim to have disciplinary policies, only seven have ever disciplined a member of staff over a consensual relationship.

At present, Universities UK guidelines on sexual misconduct do not cover staff-student relationships; however, it acknowledges that there is “work to be done”. This would bring the UK closer in line with the US, where growing numbers of universities including Princeton and Harvard have banned sexual or romantic relationships.

In the sexual misconduct experts’ view, UK universities are falling behind where they should be. “We have seen much less progress on addressing abusive relationships and coercive control compared to work on sexual violence and harassment,” Bull says. “Much greater awareness of the risks is needed.”

* Some names have been changed