Relationships between staff and students should be strongly discouraged
Universities are known for pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery and embracing progressive social values. But the unequal power relations that are a precondition for sexual harassment and abuse in society at large are too often reflected in the organizational culture of higher education rather than challenged by it.
As a woman in higher education, I have sought to listen to and respond to students and young scholars as they have complained over decades of sexual misconduct, including against members of staff. Many of us in leadership positions, myself included, have experienced such misconduct ourselves, either as students or as junior staff; we now have both the authority and the responsibility, through our duty of care, to change the culture of higher education so that all students experience university life in a safe, inclusive and stimulating way.
Thanks to research and advocacy by the National Union of Students and the 1752 Group survivor-victim group, we in UK higher education know that gender, subject and level of study are factors risk of sexual misconduct by staff members. Women, LGBT+ and graduate students are more likely to experience this, especially if they belong to more than one of these groups. We also know that there is significant under-reporting of sexual misconduct and that confusion and uncertainty exists among some staff and students as to what is and is not acceptable behavior.
The first step in the journey to combating any form of bullying is recognizing that the problem exists. It’s time to admit that there is a problem of sexual misconduct between staff and students at UK universities. By this I mean any behavior of a physically or emotionally intimate or sexual nature that, reasonably considered, is inappropriate or unacceptable. Today, such conduct too often goes uninvestigated – it is denied, paid for and passed on.
Universities must help students report sexual misconduct and do so knowing that they will be listened to, supported and communicated throughout any investigation or disciplinary proceedings (which must also, of course, respect employment law to make respect the rights of employees). It is hard enough for a young woman to report an incident of harassment at any time; it’s even harder if the person she’s reporting is her professor, supervisor, or teacher.
This is why the new guidelines from Universities UK recommend that universities strongly discourage close personal relationships between staff and students. When this happens, we recommend that the staff member be removed from any responsibilities that could constitute or be perceived to constitute a conflict of interest. We do not and cannot “ban” relationships between consenting adults, and we recognize that it is not for a university to judge them. However, he East our duty to protect students from the power imbalance inherent in a staff-student relationship.
In addition to seeking changes in university culture, our councils also define far-reaching improvements in sexual misconduct reporting policies and practices. We recommend better support for those who speak out, including anonymously, and ask that records of reports be collected so that we can better understand the scope of the problem and find ways to address it.
The Westminster and Cardiff governments have called on all universities in England and Wales to pledge not to use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in sexual harassment cases. Universities Scotland made the same statement and universities across the UK have responded with this commitment. At Cardiff Metropolitan University, for example, we have posted a statement on our website making it clear that we do not and will not use NDAs in such cases.
If we fail to address the issue of staff sexual misconduct, some students will not only have a bad learning experience or feel uncomfortable and even threatened in college. They will also be more likely to drop out of their course, which will negatively impact the rest of their lives.
We must ensure that, with the support of society at large, including the activist groups that have led the way, each campus builds a culture of trust and a sense of belonging, so that students feel heard. and know that their university will act appropriately.
If the UUK report leads to a short-term increase in reports of misconduct between staff and students, this should not be seen as a negative development. Indeed, this is likely to be a sign of a significant cultural shift towards who is empowered to speak up. This is essential for a university to respond effectively.
Ultimately, within each university, and collectively as a sector, we must change for good the culture that allows sexual misconduct to occur in the first place.
Cara Aitchison is Chair of the Universities UK Sexual Misconduct Advisory Group and Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University.