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The University of Kent recorded the highest number of incidents, with 16 cases in which a member of staff had entered into a romantic or sexual relationship with a student there. More than five of those cases (university authorities would not reveal an exact figure), which occurred between November 2015 and November 2020, resulted in disciplinary action, although it is unclear what steps were taken. A Freedom of Information request revealed just 12 of the 29 universities with cases in the five-year period took action against staff involved.
Anna Bull, of The 1752 Group, which campaigns to stop higher education sexual misconduct, said: “Since the MeToo movement the world has become increasingly aware of the difficulties of giving consent across a relationship of unequal power.
“Where there is a professional learning and teaching relationship, staff are in a position of responsibility and trust towards students and this position needs to be taken seriously and clear professional boundaries implemented.”
She added: “Abuses of power within teaching and learning relationships in higher education can be enormously damaging to students either at the time, or later down the line if a consensual relationship breaks up. And therefore universities need to ensure that such students are fully supported when such abuses take place.”
Huddersfield, Lancaster and York St John universities all reported more than five incidents. Of those, only Lancaster confirmed it had disciplined more than five staff but an exact figure and action is unknown.
The University of Roehampton, in London, is one of only three universities to ban staff from entering into a personal relationship with a student, and the only one to confirm a staff member had been fired for gross misconduct for doing so.
Staff across the UK have abused their power by pursuing improper relationships with their students
Across the board, the true number of such relationships is likely to be much higher as many never report them, and dozens of universities did not respond to our FOI request.
Meanwhile, 29 universities had not recorded any such cases. A further 38, including Cambridge and St Andrews, were unable to provide the information as it was “not held centrally”. Sara Khan, the National Union of Students vice-president for liberation and equality, said: “It is very worrying that so many universities still do not record information on staff-student sexual misconduct centrally.
“It is also appalling many universities believe that they do not have any cases of staff-student relationships.”
A 2018 survey of 1,839 current and former students by the NUS and The 1752 Group, found 41 per cent of respondents said they had faced unwelcome sexual advances and innuendo from university staff.
Hayley Turner-McIntyre, welfare officer at the University of Ports-mouth Student Union, called it “upsetting and shocking” to hear that inappropriate relationships between staff and students had taken place.
Higher education is not a safe place for many students
Her university recorded at least two cases since November 2015 and confirmed at least two staff members had received a written warning.
She said: “These figures show that there is evidence that a small number of staff have breached the appropriate boundaries between themselves and their students, and highlights a clear abuse of power by those staff.
“At the Students’ Union, we do not condone staff and student relationships, or any breaching of professional boundaries that are of a sexual or romantic nature.”
Natasha Hardaker, president of anti-sexual violence campaign It Happens Here at Warwick University, said: “I don’t think [consensual relationships] should be stopped completely but [policies] should be put in place to make sure both parties are protected.”
Comment by Sarah Khan
Higher education is not a safe place for many students.
It is an environment where sexualised touching, comments, or even threats may be experienced by students from staff members.
A 2018 report by the NUS and The 1752 Group showed women and postgrads as well as gay and bisexual students are more likely to experience sexual misconduct.
Victims face very severe consequences for their academic studies and career progression.
Currently, there’s no uniform ban on staff-student relationships. Our report has a series of recommendations on how every institution can improve their policies on this.
The University of Roehampton bans staff from entering into a relationship with a student
An education system that believes survivors, supports them emotionally and ensures a safety net for their degree and grades is in place early, would be a huge help to all students. Specifically it would be of benefit to those who face misconduct from staff.
Students facing this abuse of power can turn to their student union’s advice service.
For people supporting student survivors, The 1752 Group is an organisation that does fantastic work specifically around the issue of staff misconduct.