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Bristol UCU proposes ban on staff-student intimate relationships

Bristol UCU will consult if and how policy can be updated ‘to prohibit staff from entering into intimate personal relationships with students’ where there is current or potential responsibility in the student’s study or pastoral support.

By Roya Shahidi, Co-Editor-in-Chief

A recent Bristol UCU motion calls for a consultation on university policy which currently ‘discourages’ rather than ‘prohibits’ staff from entering into intimate relationships with the students they teach or support.

Intimate personal relationships are defined in the motion as ‘all sexual or romantic contact, whether in person and/or online or via means of other electronic communication, one-off or longer-term.’

The motion carried at Bristol UCU's EGM on April 23 and will now go to the branch's Executive Committee for endorsement.

Last reviewed in 2022, the current Sexual Misconduct and Relationship Policy at the university 'discourages intimate relationships between its staff and its students.'

This means a staff member must disclose an intimate relationship with a student to their respective Head of School or Division. The student is also encouraged to disclose it to their Academic Advisor, Head of School or other senior person.

This is to ensure there are measures which ‘prevent actual or potential conflicts of interest’. If concerns are raised, the Head of School or relevant senior manager must communicate with HR for investigation.

Dr Alix Dietzel, Senior Lecturer in Politics, helped write the current Sexual Misconduct and Relationship Policy in 2018. She also tabled the new motion on staff-student relationships, seconded by Dr Rebecca Buxton.

Speaking to Epigram, Alix explained that ‘the context has really changed in the last five years since the policy came out’ with ‘more universities who are banning relationships.’

Oxford and UCL are two examples of institutions which have since prohibited intimate staff-student relationships.

Alix said the current policy has proved to be ‘ineffective’ as ‘people aren’t coming forward’.

In 2022, an investigation by Epigram interviewed students who had had intimate relations with staff. Of the numerous students interviewed, none were aware of disclosures being made to the university.

Alix added: 'The power dynamic is where the problem lies [...] it’s too risky not to prevent these abuses of power.'

The motion cites research from The 1752 Group, a ‘UK-based research, consultancy and campaign organisation dedicated to ending staff sexual misconduct in higher education’.

The organisation carried out a survey which revealed that around 80 per cent of students ‘are uncomfortable with staff having sexual/romantic relationships with students.’

Their research also indicates that universities ‘do not have the expertise or systems to be able to safely assess risk in order to manage a register of staff-student relationships.’

Dr Anna Bull, a founding member of The 1752 Group, co-wrote the motion with Alix. In a statement to Epigram, she commented:

'At The 1752 Group we have been campaigning since 2016 to address sexual harassment of students by staff in higher education. We think that staff should be prioritising students' education rather than engaging in sexualised behaviour with students, and our research shows that the vast majority of students agree with us.

'It's great to see Bristol UCU passing a motion that supports this position, and clarifies that sexualised behaviour is not appropriate in this context.'

The motion also calls for discussions with Bristol SU to ‘devise a shared position on this issue’. This offers an opportunity for students to have a say in the university’s Sexual Misconduct and Relationship Policy. 

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A University of Bristol spokesperson said: 'Providing our staff and students with a safe environment in which to work and study is a priority. We have an existing policy on staff-student relationships which is currently in the process of being refreshed following significant work, including with the 1752 Group.

'We will be actively consulting with staff and students to facilitate wider conversations on this subject as part of the next phase of this important work.”

Featured image: Ryan Franco / Unsplash

Do you think student-staff relationships should be banned?