Lecturers at universities will have to register relationships with students they are responsible for under proposals drawn up by the universities watchdog. Any academic not disclosing such a relationship could face dismissal.
The Office for Students (OfS) has launched a consultation on the idea of “relationships register” that would apply to personal relationships where a staff member has particular responsibilities towards a student, for example where they are responsible for assessing the student’s work.
The watchdog is also consulting on an outright ban on staff-student relationships, but it says a register is its preferred option.
Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, said: “These are important proposals which would allow the OfS – for the first time – to directly regulate concerns about harassment and sexual misconduct.
“Some universities are already doing excellent work in this area, but we know that progress across the sector has been too slow and too patchy. Our independent evaluation found that self-regulation had not delivered the changes we think students are entitled to see.”
In 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported that many universities felt that their ability to share information relating to harassment complaints was limited by data protection concerns. Universities UK (UUK), which represents 140 institutions, issued guidance last year to help HR professionals handle staff-student relationship issues.
If the proposals are introduced, universities and colleges would also have to:
- introduce mandatory training for students and staff, including “bystander training” for potential witnesses to raise awareness of and prevent sexual misconduct
- publish a document outlining how they tackle harassment and sexual misconduct, including information on how to report cases and how students will be supported
- ban the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of harassment and sexual misconduct and cease enforcing existing NDAs.
Some institutions, including University College London and the University of Nottingham, already ban staff-student relationships and other HR departments offer bystander training.
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The University of Oxford “strongly advises” staff not to enter close personal or intimate relationships with students for whom they have any responsibility and requires them to alert their head of department. Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action.
Lapworth added: “Our proposals would ensure that victims of harassment and sexual misconduct are appropriately supported, and that universities and colleges make significant progress to reduce these incidents.”
The OfS is keen to hear from universities and colleges, students and others on how relationship registers at universities should work.
“‘We are particularly interested in views about relationships between staff and students. The majority of those working in higher education behave appropriately towards their students. But we recognise that there can be a power imbalance in personal relationships that could be exploited by unscrupulous staff to subject students to harassment or sexual misconduct,” Lapworth said.
“That’s why we’re proposing that certain types of personal relationships should be disclosed, with staff dismissed if they fail to do so. Some universities already go further and have policies that ban all relationships between staff and students. We will continue to consider this option and welcome views on whether it is an approach we should require of all institutions.”
Nehaal Bajwa, vice-president of liberation and equality at the National Union of Students, said: “Sexual harassment and misconduct in education are pressing issues that require immediate attention.
“Even though four in 10 students have reported experiencing sexual misconduct at universities, underreporting and inadequate support for those who do report mean that the problem is likely more extensive. Students who experience misconduct from staff members may be reluctant to report for fear of retribution that could impact their grades.”
The NUS added that the government pledged in January 2022 to stop the use of NDAs in silencing sexual harassment complainants in universities. Eighty institutions have committed not to use NDAs to deal with complaints of misconduct, and the NUS reiterated its call for all universities and colleges to sign a pledge.
UUK said it takes harassment and sexual misconduct extremely seriously and its members have been working hard to meet their obligations in this area.
In a statement, it said: “However, we recognise that there is still work to be done. We look forward to working with OfS, so that these proposals will further strengthen universities’ own efforts to ensure student safety.”
The OfS consultation closes on 4 May 2023.
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