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Student-staff relationships: is Bristol University doing enough to protect students?

Within weeks of moving into student halls, Alice*, matched on a dating app with a tutor teaching on her new University course. ‘I was in my first year,’ she says. ‘I’d just moved out of my parents’ house and I felt this massive surge in independence'.

By Billy Stockwell, Investigations Editor

Within weeks of moving into student halls, Alice*, matched on a dating app with a tutor teaching on her new University course. ‘I was in my first year,’ she says. ‘I’d just moved out of my parents’ house and I felt this massive surge in independence. It made me feel like I was in control of my own life, doing these things that my parents might not approve of.’

‘He definitely wasn’t viewing it through that lens,’ Alice admits.

In messages seen by Epigram, her new match, a tutor in his 30s, revealed that he was going to be teaching on one of her first-year modules. At the time, they both joked about it. Alice says it is only in retrospect that she thinks the situation was slightly more problematic. ‘As the younger one you look up to the other person … you don’t want to admit that it makes you feel special, but it does,’ she says. ‘I got far too drunk in his bedroom. We saw each other a few times.’

Sadly, this started to impact upon Alice's studies. At one point she even felt the need to skip University because the tutor was going to be in the lecture. ‘I didn’t go to it,’ Alice admits. ‘I didn’t want to see him in that light … I remember sitting in another lecture and looking on Blackboard to see the tutors on my course, and I saw his name. It felt so strange. I was a little first year sitting in this lecture and he was basically teaching this entire room.’

I don’t think reporting it even crossed my mind

According to the University’s safeguarding policy, staff are required to disclose any intimate relationship they have with a student, whether in person or online, to their academic school. Students are also encouraged to do the same. Each person is then given a point of contact, to ensure that no abuse of power or coercion is taking place, whilst protecting the privacy of both parties.

However, as far as Alice is aware, this never happened. ‘I don’t think reporting it even crossed my mind … I wasn’t aware of [the University’s policy] and perhaps he wasn’t either,’ she says.

It’s not particularly surprising that students are keeping the University out of the loop in regard to their secret affairs, for often they are not even confiding in their friends. Asked if she told anyone about her “situationship” with a tutor, as she called it, Alice said: ‘It would be really awkward to even mention. I mentioned it to perhaps one or two really close friends, but overall, not really. That would have been difficult to even approach.’

Tinder, Grindr and Hinge have all been used by staff members to chat to students | Canva 

In 2019, Bristol University implemented its first policy addressing student-staff relationships. Whilst the policy does not ban student-staff relationships, it does clearly state that they discourage them, due to ‘the inherent imbalance of power between staff and students.’

If a staff member fails to disclose a relationship they are having with a student, this could result in disciplinary action.

The policy also states that ‘predatory behaviour’ or ‘any form of sexual advance towards students’ from a staff member could result in their dismissal from the University.

However, according to recent data obtained by Epigram, no disciplinary action has been taken against a staff member, in relation to a student-staff relationship, since the policy was put in place three years ago.

This data, obtained via a Freedom of Information request, along with multiple testimonies by current and former students, also suggests that student-staff relationships are being underreported. Alice therefore believes that they are ‘more common than people think.’

Neither of us acknowledged each other to avoid arousing suspicion

Whilst some staff members could be failing to report student-staff relationships out of ignorance, another student, Charlie*, was told that remaining silent was a ‘condition’ of his relationship with a Bristol University staff member. ‘They made it pretty clear that they wouldn’t meet otherwise,’ he says. ‘I assured them I wouldn’t.’

Charlie believes that the staff member he had sex with was aware of the University’s policy, as ‘they gave off the impression of being somewhat uncomfortable with what we were doing.’ However, despite this, it is not thought that this relationship was disclosed.

‘We encountered each other on campus, but neither of us acknowledged each other to avoid arousing suspicion,’ he says.

Charlie first spoke to this particular staff member on Grindr, an app which he believes makes it much easier for these types of sexual relationships to occur. ‘The app facilitates easy, quick and discrete sexual encounters … without Grindr there isn’t as obvious a channel,’ he says.

Even though Charlie says that it was a ‘consenting casual relationship between two adults’, he recognises that for more immature students there could be a greater risk of harm. ‘In general, I wouldn’t approve of student-staff relationships,’ he says.

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Bristol University staff have been found to be using Tinder, Grindr and Hinge to chat to students, according to those who Epigram spoke to. All of these apps allow users to set an age preference, meaning that some staff are intentionally matching with younger students, such as in Alice’s case.

‘You don’t have to have a face-to-face interaction after a seminar or anything like that,’ she says. ‘I think it is very easy for people to fall into these dynamics.’

In fact, Epigram was informed about three other students who spoke to a staff member on Grindr. One student says he had sex with his tutor after first speaking on the app in second year. He continued to be taught by this member of staff for the rest of the module, but both pretended like nothing had ever happened when around other students.

Another student was messaged on Grindr by a lecturer at the University. In these messages, which Epigram has seen, the lecturer writes in a boastful manner about having sex with multiple students, suggesting that it is allowed by the University.

‘I’m sure Grindr and other dating apps are used a lot in this way,’ the student tells Epigram. ‘It’s so easy to reach out to people and because it’s not in a lecture hall or seminar room no one else knows it is happening.’

‘Just because it’s not happening on campus, it doesn’t mean it’s not the University’s responsibility.’

The list of similar experiences goes on, with Epigram being told that staff have ‘hit on’ students at society events, taken students out for drinks on their own outside University hours and even had sex with students on field courses. Whilst describing these instances, students did not mention the University policy once.

Whilst no student described any criminal behaviour, Alice believes that ‘it’s one of those things where the lines are a bit blurry … I can’t see how someone of that age can have any genuine interest in someone of a much younger age.’

What is the University doing to address student-staff relationships?

In 2018, Bristol University made significant progress to tackle some of the issues associated with student-staff relationships when Dr Alix Dietzel, a lecturer in politics, discussed the topic with then Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady.

Alix has first-hand experience of these types of relationships, and the complications that come with them. ‘I had a relationship with a member of staff when I was a student at [Sheffield] university’, she tells Epigram. ‘He's actually married to another student now, who's even younger than me’.

‘It's rarely this ‘oh, I just fell in love with one student, it just happened this one time’,’ she says. ‘That's not really the dynamic of people who sleep with students. It's usually a serial offender.’

Prior to Alix’s intervention, Bristol University did not have a specific policy on this issue, in line with many other Universities across the UK. However, Hugh Brady was ‘really receptive’ to Alix and others’ proposals. ‘We set up a task force of people who were interested in that topic, including students, and drafted a policy.’

One year after this meeting, in July 2019, the policy was put into place. Alix called it one of her ‘proudest days as an academic’.

Some Universities in the UK still don’t have a policy, whereas others, like UCL, have gone one step further, completely banning student-staff relationships ‘where the staff member has a direct responsibility for, or involvement in, that student’s academic studies and/or personal welfare.’

Bristol’s policy is therefore some-what of a halfway house, a place that Alix thinks is right, for now. ‘The idea has come up whether we need to ban student-staff relationships or not … but there are people on both sides, so it's very difficult to make that decision unilaterally for all of our students and all of our staff,’ she says.

‘I personally think student-staff relationships can never be completely innocent, there's always a power dynamic that is really important to consider.’

‘When you're young you might think it's cool that an older person is into you, like your professor, who is powerful, intellectual and interesting. But that's what predators use, that excitement from the young person to make them feel special.’

In spite of this, Alix does not believe that banning student-staff relations would actually help protect students. ‘It might even help abusers who are serially dating students to convince the student to not come forward, because it could get them in trouble.’

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “Our policy on staff and student relationships was written in 2019. The policy was published on our website and this was communicated to staff.

“As a University we discourage consensual intimate relationships between our staff and students but we accept that sometimes they will happen. When they do we require staff to disclose the relationship to their head of school. Students are encouraged to do the same. This is so that measures can be put in place to prevent potential conflicts of interest while ensuring the matter is dealt with in a way that protects the dignity and privacy of those involved.

“The policy is clear that 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.

“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 are strongly encouraged to reach out for support and advice so we can investigate and take action as necessary.”

The University’s Safeguarding committee is currently looking to update its safeguarding policies in this area, Alix says, as ‘the landscape has changed’ since the 2019 policy was introduced.

*names have been changed to protect the identity of students

Featured image: Canva

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