Watchdog proposes tough new sanctions for universities over staff-student relationships

Academics who refuse to report personal relationships with their students should be dismissed, the universities watchdog has proposed

Eleanor Busby
Thursday 23 February 2023 07:27 GMT
The Office for Students has proposed new rules for academics involved in relationships with students (Chris Radburn/PA)
The Office for Students has proposed new rules for academics involved in relationships with students (Chris Radburn/PA)

Universities in England could face sanctions if intimate relationships between staff and students who they have academic responsibilities for are not disclosed under plans by the higher education watchdog.

Academics who refuse to report relationships with their students – which involve sexual activity, romantic intimacy or financial dependency – should be dismissed, the Office for Students (OfS) has proposed.

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, warned that a “power imbalance” in personal relationships could be “exploited by unscrupulous staff” to subject students to harassment or sexual misconduct.

Addressing harassment and sexual misconduct would be a new ongoing condition of registration for universities and colleges in England under the proposals set out by the higher education regulator.

A consultation has been launched by the OfS on the proposed steps that institutions would be required to take under the condition – which includes banning the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) which forbid students from talking about incidents of harassment or sexual misconduct.

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

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the Office for Students

It proposes requiring universities and colleges to maintain a register of personal relationships that exist between students and relevant staff, such as those involved in teaching students or marking their work, and “to manage and address any actual or potential conflict of interest and/or abuse of power”.

The watchdog describes a “personal relationship” as one that involves physical intimacy, including “isolated or repeated sexual activity”, romantic or emotional intimacy, and/or financial dependency.

The condition could see universities face a range of sanctions – including being fined, stripped of access to student loan funding or de-registered – if they fail to comply with the regulator’s requirements.

Views are also being sought on whether all universities should be required to ban such personal relationships between students and staff, but the watchdog said its “preferred option” was a register of staff-student relationships.

Ms Lapworth said: “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.

“That’s why we’re proposing that certain types of personal relationships should be disclosed, with staff dismissed if they fail to do so.”

Under the proposals, universities would also be required to publish a document setting out the steps they will take to protect students from harassment and sexual misconduct.

The document would include information about how to report cases of harassment and sexual misconduct, as well as explain how students will be supported through the process.

Power imbalances still exist even without staff responsibilities towards the student, and so the criteria for a 'relationships register' should include all staff-student relationships

Tiffany Page, co-director of The 1752 Group

The watchdog is calling on universities to introduce mandatory training for students and staff – which should include training for potential witnesses to raise awareness of and prevent sexual misconduct.

Ms Lapworth 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.”

She added: “Harassment and sexual misconduct can have a profound – and sometimes devastating – impact on the lives of students, including damage to their education.

“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.”

Tiffany Page, co-director of The 1752 Group, an organisation that lobbies to end sexual misconduct in higher education, said: “Any measures put in place by the OfS must ensure that staff-student relationships are not driven underground.

“The OfS proposed requirement for staff to disclose a relationship on a register would need to be combined with safeguarding measures after relationships are declared and continued education on why relationships are so problematic.

“Power imbalances still exist even without staff responsibilities towards the student, and so the criteria for a ‘relationships register’ should include all staff-student relationships.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson said: “Our members take tackling harassment and sexual misconduct extremely seriously and have been working hard to meet their obligations in this area.

“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.

“It is crucial that any new obligations on universities are proportionate and work for the full range of institutions.”

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