Academics in relationships with students ‘abuse’ their power says campus harassment campaigner

Exclusive: ‘Particular departments have a culture of staff having sexual relationships with students and it is seen as totally normal,’ says expert

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Tuesday 01 June 2021 20:04 BST
<p>The National Union of Students (NUS)  says it is calling for staff-student relationships to be banned</p>

The National Union of Students (NUS) says it is calling for staff-student relationships to be banned

Universities should ban relationships between academics and students because such liaisons amount to an “abuse” of power, according to one of Britain’s leading experts on campus sexual harassment.

University College London (UCL) became the first Russell Group university to ban sexual and romantic relationships between lecturers and their students last year, but it is one of only six institutions in the UK which prohibits such relationships.

Dr Anna Bull, co-founder of the 1752 group, which campaigns to stop sexual misconduct in higher education, told The Independent relationships between academics and students are highly risky and should be barred at all universities.

Her comments are backed by the National Union of Students, which says staff-student relationships should be banned in universities across the UK.

Dr Bull, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth, said: “Students are more likely to be targeted by other students, but lecturers and academics do sometimes abuse their position, which can be really damaging for students.

“Sometimes particular departments have a culture of staff having sexual and intimate relationships with students and it is seen as totally normal. There is a high risk to it and the abuse of power having a negative effect on student’s ability to engage in studies. The risk is so much that they should be prohibited.”

Dr Bull, who has carried out research on these issues, noted most universities have a policy where they “strongly discourage” staff-student relationships or ask their employees to declare them.

“But it is hard to tell what happens – it varies from institution to institution,” she added.

A previous study found four-fifths of students were not comfortable with staff engaging in relationships, with some pupils branding them “predatory”.

The poll of 1,839 current and ex-students by the 1752 Group and the NUS also found four in 10 students saying they had been subjected to assault, sexual remarks, unwanted touching or rape.

The guidelines on sexual misconduct drawn up by Universities UK, the representative body for all such institutions, does not mention relationships between university staff and students.

A Universities UK spokesperson said: “All universities should have policies in place that define expectations of professional behaviour between staff and students – including behaviour that breaches professional standards or crosses boundaries between professional and personal relationships – and which safeguard against abuses of power and sexual misconduct.

“The full scope of any policy is a matter for individual universities to decide, but it is vitally important that all acknowledge the power imbalances that exist between members of staff and students who rely on their teaching, supervision and support.”

Sara Khan, the vice president of Liberation and Equality at NUS, told The Independent: “A system which believes survivors would be a huge help to all students, but specifically to students who face misconduct from staff.

“These students are often particularly hesitant and unlikely to report or seek support precisely because, not only is there a risk they will not be believed, but also a risk that a staff member responsible for misconduct against them will negatively impact their grades or their entire degree.

“Therefore a system which believes student survivors and prioritises their well-being, as well as ensuring mitigation and a safety net to their degree and grades would be the best approach.”

Women from 15 higher education institutions last month signed a letter saying universities made a mess of their sexual assault claims, while calling for a compulsory policy for handling such allegations in universities.

The graduate who spearheaded the letter, Sydney Feder, told The Independent she was subjected to sexual assault in her last year at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

The 23-year-old added: “I was alone in the women’s changing rooms at 10 at night. College was really empty.

“He lunged at me, shoved me down, and pinned my face and chest down on the desk, and was aggressively massaging my back and shoulders. It was so painful. I could not move. He was so strong. He is a big, strong, really tall guy. He stayed there for a few minutes and then left.”

She said she later found out a complaint by another woman had been filed against him but had been “ignored” - adding that her own experience of reporting the incident was “a disaster”.

Ms Feder added: “The way higher education is set up is allowing selfish, incompetent individuals to run biased investigations and re-traumatise survivors rather than support them.”

The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama told the BBC all allegations they received were “investigated thoroughly”, adding that “these specific allegations and questions raised are the subject of a sensitive and ongoing civil compensation claim to which the college has filed a robust defence.”

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