Universities must “strongly discourage” sexual relationships between staff and students, according to official new guidance aimed at tackling staff-to-student sexual misconduct in higher education.
The recommendations fall short of banning relationships between consenting adults, but where they occur staff should be removed from all responsibilities where there could be a conflict of interests.
The new guidance drawn up by Universities UK, which represents the sector, acknowledges universities have been too slow to address the problem of staff-to-student sexual misconduct.
It warns vice-chancellors against using non disclosure agreements (NDAs) – or confidentiality clauses – to silence complainants in settlement agreements in cases of sexual misconduct or sexual harassment.
The guidance calls on universities to create an inclusive and positive culture, backed up by clear policies, practices, reporting and data, to support and protect students when they make complaints and prevent future staff-to-student sexual misconduct.
“Our universities have been too slow to address this issue, which affects every institution,” said Prof Cara Aitchison, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University and the chair of the advisory group that drew up the guidance.
“We must now be seen to make rapid progress to right this wrong. Preventing and addressing staff-to-student sexual misconduct is, fundamentally, about doing the right thing. We also need to act to comply with a legal duty of care, and to safeguard the reputation and position of our universities.”
The report says there is limited evidence on staff-to-student sexual misconduct, but research by the Guardian, the National Union of Students and the 1752 Group, which has led the way in the battle to end staff sexual misconduct in higher education, has raised concerns about the scale of the problem and the way in which universities deal with it.
According to the report, titled “Changing the culture: tackling staff-to-student sexual misconduct,” the vast majority of complaints are made by female students about male staff, postgraduate students are more likely to be targeted than undergraduates, and the issue often goes unreported.
It damages educational experiences and can lead to students dropping out, while the use of NDAs can help perpetrators to move from one university to another with their reputation intact and the same person can end up offending in multiple institutions.
On staff-student relationships and the unequal balance of power, it says: “While we recognise the autonomy of universities, given the power differentials and professional relationship between staff and students, we recommend that close, personal relationships between staff and students are strongly discouraged by universities.
“This is especially important where there is a direct professional responsibility. Where relationships do occur, the staff member should be removed from all responsibilities that may entail a perceived or actual conflict of interest and/or abuse of power.
“Universities should, where appropriate, and in accordance with data protection and human rights legislation, require staff members to declare any close, personal relationships they have with students, for whom they have a direct responsibility. A failure to declare can be treated as a disciplinary matter.”
Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education, said more than 30 universities have so far signed up to a pledge she launched in January to end the use of NDAs, adding: “Universities have a profound responsibility to protect students from sexual misconduct, especially when perpetrated by those in positions of power such as a member of staff, so I welcome this timely guidance.”