Universities need to rethink policy on student-staff relationships


The Human Rights Commission report, Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities, was published in August 2017.

In response, Australian universities have taken various actions to address sexual assault and harassment on their campuses. Most are directed at making universities safer places to study and live. Measures includeintroducing mandatory responding to disclosure and training for all staff, teaching students about consent, and increasing the number of specialist counselling staff.

Framing staff-student relationships

Universities should also review policy governing staff-student relationships. Across the sector, these relationships are framed as consensual and are couched in unhelpful, ambiguous language. We conducted a review of staff-student relationship policies in Australian universities and international policies. We found the following similarities across most institutions.

Staff are generally discouraged from entering into sexual relationships with students. Discouragement aside, universities recognise that these relationships may occur. Many universities express reluctance to interfere in the “personal” lives of staff and students. Most set out some conditions that should apply when the discouraged but inevitable relationships form.

Conditions may include the staff member disclosing the relationship to the university. This may lead to adjustments to the duties of that staff member, which are then outlined in varying degrees of detail. Where specified, these may include removing the staff member from any assessment of the student’s work. They may also not be able to make decisions regarding the award of scholarships or other distinctions. In the case of graduate research candidates, it may involve removing the staff member as senior or main supervisor. However, they may still be able to serve on the supervision team.

Many Australian universities then link this policy with their Conflict of Interest policy. This signals that the biggest concern about staff-student sexual relationships is the possibility of conflicts of interest emerging for the staff member. This does little to address the potentially damaging impact of these relationships on students, and on the learning and research environment for other students.

We need better professional standards

The health care sector has much clearer professional standards. For health care practitioners, professional boundaries are recognised as integral to good practitioner–client relationships. Accordingly, professional standards prohibit sexual relationships entirely. This lasts either for the duration of the professional association or for some period (up to two years in some cases) after the professional relationship has ended.

The Medical Board of Australia states:

A doctor should not enter into a sexual relationship with a patient even with the patient’s consent.

For psychologists and counsellors, this prohibition extends to former clients and anyone closely related to the client.

The code of professional conduct set out by the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia notes the vulnerability of clients under their care, and their relative powerlessness, must be recognised and managed. Sexual relationships between these professionals and current or previous patients are deemed inappropriate and unprofessional.

In comparison, universities have a relatively relaxed stance on these types of relationships. The ethical standards applied to other professions are explicit that the power imbalance is one where free consent can’t be assumed on the part of the client/patient. It is up to the practitioner to make sure professional boundaries are maintained at all times. Seeking sexual partners among their clients/patients puts their professional registration and their ability to practice at risk.

What would happen if we applied the same standards to university staff? If it is accepted that the imbalance of power between staff and students compromises the capacity of a student to provide free consent for sexual activity, and sexual activity without free consent is harassment or assault (as defined by law), then the current framing of staff-student “consensual” relationships by Australian universities is inappropriate. It is also inconsistent with the sector’s stated aim to focus on the interests and needs of students.

Universities should consider adopting professional standards like those in the health care profession. Their stated aim is to prioritise the welfare of students and their entitlement to learn and undertake research in a safe, respectful environment. If we are really to “change the course”, we need to do more than address student sexual conduct. We need to raise the bar for professional and ethical standards for all who work in this sector as well.

Author Bios: Denise Cuthbert is Associate Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research Training and Development and Fiona Zammit both at RMIT University