The University of Oxford has become the latest institute in the United Kingdom, and one of many worldwide, to prohibit intimate relationships between a student (either undergraduate or graduate) and any member of staff (including faculty members, tutors, mentors and people who work in admissions) with oversight or assessment responsibilities for that student.
The policy, which came into effect on 17 April, states that the university will deal with existing relationships by ensuring that the relevant staff member has no further responsibility for the student in question. “It’s really significant,” says Anna Bull, an education and social-justice researcher at the University of York, UK. “Oxford is the kind of institution that other institutions, both in the UK and internationally, take a lot of notice of.”
A handful of UK institutions have introduced similar policies over the past decade, including University College London, the University of Nottingham and the University of York. Some institutions globally have even stricter bans, prohibiting relationships between faculty members and undergraduate students, irrespective of whether they have professional relationships. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, enacted such a ban in 2015, for example.
Protecting students’ rights
Relationships between students and faculty or staff members can cross professional boundaries, introduce conflicts of interest and risk abuses of power. Many universities have long discouraged them, sometimes requiring that they be reported to a line manager or even banning them entirely.
Such regulations aim to prevent bias and protect students’ rights. “It’s not just about whether a staff member might change their behaviour,” says Harriet Schwartz, who studies teaching practices at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and author of the 2019 book Connected Teaching, which discusses power relationships in higher education. “It’s also about whether a student feels comfortable navigating the university.”
Oxford’s move overlaps with a consultation on proposed rules against harassment and sexual misconduct, running from 23 February to 4 May, by the UK Office for Students (OfS), an independent body with regulatory powers. The OfS’s preferred proposal would require relationships to be recorded in registers held at universities, but it is seeking feedback on the idea of an outright ban. “There’s a flurry of committees and working groups now,” says Bull.
“The register has the benefit that at least the relationship is recorded,” says Nehaal Bajwa, vice-president of liberation and equity at the UK National Union of Students in Brighton. “But it’s hard to know what the outcome would be,” she says, if those relationships become problematic, for example. “The policies put in place don’t always work as desired. There won’t be one thing that fixes everything.”
Women in science
Both Bull and Bajwa say that although Oxford’s policy sends the right message, strict bans are neither necessary nor sufficient. A ban also risks sending relationships underground if, for example, the student fears they would be putting a faculty member’s job in jeopardy or if the relationship involves an affair. More important than what is or isn’t banned, Bull says, is whether universities have a system to enforce good standards of behaviour. “There has to be a wider programme of work around awareness raising, and also there needs to be specialist staff who understand violence and how to recognize abusive relationships,” says Bull. “A ban on its own won’t do that much,” agrees Bajwa. “It has to come as a suite of measures.”
According to a 2020 Freedom of Information request by newspaper The Guardian, 97 of 122 UK universities had relationship policies, although only 12 kept registers. Bull says that most policies strongly discourage student–staff relationships. “That can be perfectly adequate for taking action if the institution is actually committed to it,” she says.
There is a long history of oversight of intimate relationships in universities. In the United States, court cases in the 1980s established that sexual harassment was a form of sexual discrimination, which is banned at educational institutions that receive federal funding. And a US Supreme Court ruling in 1986 brought implications for apparently consensual relationships when it found that a sexual relationship between one employer and employee was not voluntary, because the plaintiff had initially agreed to it for fear of losing her job. Such rulings have caused many US universities to re-evaluate their regulations governing relationships.
Other nations have also seen universities establish relationship policies. In 2018, Australia issued a national policy stating that sexual or romantic relationships between academic supervisors and their students, including PhD candidates, are “never appropriate”. Many Canadian universities, including the University of British Columbia in Vancouver as of 2020, prohibit close relationships between faculty and staff members and those they supervise.
Although some see student–staff relationships as a matter of personal freedom between consenting adults, others note that such relationships raise the risk of abuse. “If you look at other professions, such as medical professionals, psychologists, counsellors, priests, there are pretty clear policies” against such liaisons, Bull says. “We’re not having the conversation in those professions about ‘is it okay’.”
Bajwa points out that entrenched power imbalances at universities can make it hard for faculty members to see student perspectives about many issues, and for students to question the behaviour of staff members. At universities, “the culture is very hierarchical”, she says. “I find it really problematic.”
Consent can be subtly marred by coercion or fear of reprisal, and, in hindsight, people might change their minds about whether a relationship was exploitative. In a 2017–18 survey of more than 1,500 UK university students, now accepted for publication in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, one participant noted: “Even if the student is consenting at that time, they don’t understand how vulnerable they are to that person until years after sometimes.”
High rates of sexualized behaviour
The survey — led by the National Union of Students Women’s Campaign and the 1752 Group, a UK advocacy group working to stop sexual misconduct in higher education co-founded by Bull — notes that sexual advances are common at universities. More than 40% of respondents reported experiencing at least one instance of (wanted or unwanted) sexualized behaviour from a staff member. Rates were higher for graduate than for undergraduate students: twice as many graduate students, for example, reported that staff members had tried to start conversations with them about sex. Importantly, says Bull, 80% of both graduate and undergraduate students said in the survey that they were uncomfortable with the idea of romantic relationships between university staff, including faculty members, and students.
The survey explores the sometimes-blurry lines between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Students were less uncomfortable with having a drink or socializing with a staff member, for example, or being added as a friend on Facebook, than with being invited to a one-on-one dinner or a meeting at a staff member’s home. Bull emphasizes that initial attempts to start a relationship, such as a touch or a comment on a student’s appearance, can also cause discomfort and other problems. “Those kinds of grooming behaviour seem to be not unusual, shall we say, in academia,” says Bull. She notes that some universities, such as University College London, include grooming behaviour1 explicitly in their sexual-misconduct policy.
Such regulations are not meant to prevent close professional relationships, says Bull. “You can socialize with students, if you have an understanding of your position of power,” she says. “It’s not rocket science. It’s just about having some shared norms in place about what’s appropriate.”
The OfS consultation is looking at the possibility of mandatory training for both students and staff and faculty members regarding sexual misconduct — including guidance on what to do on witnessing something questionable happening to another person. “That’s a big ask,” says Bull.
The OfS is also seeking feedback on banning non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment and misconduct, to prevent the silencing of victims. As of November 2022, dozens of UK universities have pledged not to use such agreements in these cases. An amendment to the Higher Education Freedom of Speech bill was passed in the House of Lords last December to reinforce such a ban, but it has further hurdles to overcome before becoming law.
The OfS consultation is expected to lead to a mandatory set of rules for universities later this year.