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Staff/student personal relationships

The University does not seek unduly to interfere in relationships between consenting adults.  However, the University has a duty of care to its students. This duty of care is owed to students by all University staff but owed in especially important ways by Tutors.

The Vice-Chancellor wrote to all Heads of Department on 19 May 1994 (mindful of his responsibilities under Statute V) as follows:

  • "Staff have a professional and ethical responsibility to protect the interests of students, and to accept the constraints and obligations which are inherent in that
  • They should be aware that maintaining the boundaries between professional and personal life is difficult; and that if they form a relationship with a student, there may be risks and difficulties, and other students and their own colleagues may be affected
  • A member of staff who is in a relationship with a student must not be directly professionally involved with assessing or examining that student, and in general this would apply also to teaching. The Head of Department, or the appropriate Dean, must therefore be informed so that the necessary arrangements can be made; these will of course seek to ensure that the student is neither advantaged nor disadvantaged. A declaration of this kind will be treated in complete confidence."

Experience shows that it is easy, quite inadvertently, to overlook or misjudge boundaries. Members of staff are therefore strongly discouraged from making personal relationships with students.

Avoiding potentially compromising situations through awareness

Sexual activity which is ostensibly consensual may be an abuse of trust and subject to later recrimination and legitimate complaint where an imbalance of power exists between the parties. This is difficult territory because the spark which sometimes sets relationships alight (for both parties) may be the existence of an imbalance of power. Such an imbalance may also give rise to an experience of coercion. One party may for example wish to 'date' and the other be reluctant but not say 'no' clearly at an early stage; or perhaps the 'no' is not immediately accepted; or perhaps the 'no' is apparently accepted but altered behaviour follows, for example, a perception of punishment in the form of undue academic criticism. The latter may be labelled 'harassment' or 'sexual harassment' depending on the context.

Where there is a perception that such pressures may be linked to possible academic favours, complaints can become very complex, time consuming, expensive and harrowing for everyone. Even worse is a situation where an allegation is made but no formal complaint, or a formal complaint is made and then withdrawn – both tactics available to an angry student who sees no reason to spend a great deal of personal time in giving written or verbal evidence but who is content to leave suspicion in the air. This can be very damaging to a member of staff.

For all these reasons staff should regard awareness of possible imbalances of power as not just about not abusing a position of trust or duty of care but about not permitting themselves to be put in a position where their behaviour could all too readily be construed as suspicious, thereby avoiding allegations (however unjustified) of inappropriate behaviour. In this context it is not a defence for a member of staff to maintain that a student did not object to a particular behaviour, that the student gave or appeared to give permission, or indeed that the student initiated the activity.

When might an imbalance of power arise?

  • When a member of staff has a personal relationship with a student as well as a professional one. This does not disbar the member of staff from all dealings with the student – it is often enough that a declaration of the 'interest' be made to the relevant authority, usually Head of School in the first instance, who can decide what action is appropriate, if any
  • When a member of staff teaches, assesses, or examines a student but has, or may have a developing interest in, a personal relationship with that student, or vice versa. This should be declared as above so appropriate arrangements can be made to avoid any possibility of advantage or disadvantage for the student
  • When a student may be more vulnerable than normal. Examples could include:
  1. When a student is going through a period of transition and therefore uncertainty, such as immediately after entry to university
  2. When a student has a disability or chronic illness, or where such a background has restricted developmental opportunities and therefore delayed maturity, rendering the student perhaps over trusting or over eager to do what they are told
  3. When a student has mental or emotional problems which leave them temporarily over needy for close emotional support or the sense of being valued, such as the aftermath of bereavement, or a marriage break-up
  4. When a student is vulnerable much of the time. Increasing numbers of students arrive at university with chronic mental health problems which are not readily apparent but can be brought out by a variety of stressors. Seductive/dependent relationships are not unknown where a member of staff attempting to end a relationship with a student finds themselves blackmailed into continuing by threats of or actual self-harm, overdoses, etc. A member of staff may find it difficult to discern and demonstrate the required duty of care (owed by all staff) in the midst of a deepening personal, professional and public relations nightmare.

The Personal Tutor

Academic staff who become Tutors have a great potential imbalance of power with tutees. There can be a one-way knowledge of personal information, the power to write employment references and the power to act with discretion for the student in certain circumstances. For example, support or denial of support to a student making a case against examination failure could be crucial to the outcome. The Tutor may be the person through whom complaints about such serious issues as sexual harassment by other members of the University may be channelled and may give advice and use counselling skills in a non-clinical way. In short, the Tutor represents the University to the student and the student to the University in such a way that mixing these representative activities with personal activities could compromise the good name of the University.

The Tutor can come very close to the professional confidant type relationship engaged in by physicians, psychologists, counsellors and others which over the years has attracted compulsory codes of conduct. Like those professionals it is clear that the 'duty of care' and the duty to act in a 'reasonable' manner implies that a Tutor, in being informed by such considerations, should never mix professional and personal relationships.

When in doubt

Should any member of staff have the slightest doubt about an overlap of personal and professional interest this doubt should be declared to the Head of School in the first instance. Should a Tutor have any suspicion that the behaviour of a tutee, or indeed their own behaviour however inadvertent, could compromise their role the Head of School should similarly be consulted. Should a member of staff prefer to approach the matter less formally in the first instance, perhaps to reflect on and clarify their thoughts and feelings about whether their concerns are justified, a completely confidential consultation with Human Resources or Counselling and Wellbeing could be considered.

Concern about colleagues

Should any member of staff become aware of behaviour by any other member of staff which arouses their concern that the duty of care referred to above may be compromised and the good name of the University with it, they have a duty to draw this to the attention of the relevant Head of School or to the Director of Student and Academic Services. Should they prefer to approach the matter less formally in the first instance they can consider, as before, discussing the matter in complete confidence with a Human Resource Manager or a member of Counselling and Wellbeing. Given the potentially serious nature of the matter it is wise to follow the above procedure to guard against unwittingly being personally compromised or drawn in, even where it is decided subsequently to do no more than have a quiet word personally and directly with the colleague concerned.

The advice above applies to all staff including temporary, honorary and volunteer staff. It also applies to postgraduate students acting as staff, whether paid or unpaid, when teaching. The advice applies irrespective of sexual orientation (neither homosexual nor heterosexual relationships are acceptable within a position of trust) and irrespective of gender, race, and religion.

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