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No disciplinary action taken against Bristol Uni staff despite undisclosed sex with students

A recent Epigram investigation has found that no members of staff have been sanctioned in relation to intimate relationships with students, despite reported breaches of the university's safeguarding policy.

By Megan Evans, News Editor and Billy Stockwell, Investigations Editor

A recent Epigram investigation has found that no members of staff have been sanctioned in relation to intimate relationships with students, despite reported breaches of the university's safeguarding policy.

A policy implemented by Bristol University in 2019 states that staff must disclose any intimate relationships with students to their Head of School, with a failure to do so potentially resulting in disciplinary action. Staff members may also face dismissal if they are found to be abusing their position of professional power through coercion, control, or harassment.

However, data obtained by Epigram shows that no action has been taken against a member of staff since the policy was put in place.

This is despite numerous students describing sexual interactions they've had with university staff to Epigram that weren't disclosed to the University. These interactions range from students being 'hit on' by staff at university events to staff having sex with students whom they met on dating apps like Tinder and Grindr.

One student explained how she had a sexual relationship with a tutor teaching on her first-year course within just weeks of moving to Bristol, whilst another was messaged on a dating app by a staff member who said that having sex was permitted by the University.

While it is true that staff-student relationships are not banned at the University of Bristol, they are ‘discouraged’ due to the ‘inherent imbalance of power’ between students and staff, according to the safeguarding policy.

The policy also states: ‘If an intimate relationship develops between a student and a member of staff, that both parties regard as consensual ... the staff member is required to disclose this to their Head of School or Division.’

However, of the students Epigram spoke to, none were aware of disclosures being made to the university, while one even stated that non-disclosure was a clear ‘condition’ of his sexual relationship with a tutor.

In light of these recent findings, Dr Alix Dietzel, who spearheaded the creation of the university’s current Sexual Misconduct and Relationships Policy, stated that its revision is now a ‘priority.’

Epigram's investigation has prompted new consideration of how to address those relationships going ‘under the radar’, she says.

Dr Anna Bull, the co-director of The 1752 Group, an organisation committed to ending staff sexual misconduct in higher education, stated that it was ‘extremely disappointing that the University of Bristol's policy on staff-student relationships appears to be window-dressing only.

‘In our research, we have found that the vast majority of students are uncomfortable with staff having sexual or romantic relationships with students and that such relationships can be hugely harmful to students' wellbeing and their ability to engage with their studies. The University of Bristol needs to do better.’

The group's 2018 report ‘Power in the academy’ revealed that, out of 1535 respondents, 40% of students in the UK have experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from a staff member.

Student-staff relationships: is Bristol University doing enough to protect students?
What you need to know about the university’s policies on sexual harassment and sexual violence

In a statement, Professor Sarah Purdy, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at the University of Bristol, said: ‘Providing our staff and students with a safe environment in which to work and study is extremely important. As such we have recently established a new working group that is examining a range of areas across the organisation related to safeguarding, what support and advice is currently in place and what more the University can do to protect and support its staff and students.

‘Staff/student relationships and the complex issues associated with them is one of the areas this group will look at. As we’ve said previously, we discourage these relationships and have a clear policy in place that requires staff to disclose them with their head of school. Students are encouraged to disclose such a relationship to their academic advisor/personal tutor, Head of School or other senior person.

‘The policy is clear: staff must not abuse their position in any way and such behaviour could constitute serious or gross misconduct and will be subject to disciplinary proceedings, including potential dismissal from the University.

‘We will look at all of this in more detail to see what more can be done to publicise the policy, especially if, as Epigram has reported, these relationships are not being properly declared. There are very sound reasons why this needs to be done in order to prevent potential conflicts of interest, ensuring the dignity and privacy of those involved and providing them with information on where to go for advice and support if required.

‘It goes without saying that if any student or staff member, or indeed friends and colleagues, have concerns about coercion or inappropriate behaviour resulting from a staff/student relationship they should reach out so we can investigate and take action as necessary.’

Featured image: Canva

How do you think Bristol University should deal with student-staff relationships?