Poynted remarks

IssueAugust 2020 - September 2020
Comment by Claire Poyner

A 2018 survey by the 1752 Group and the NUS found that four out of five university students said they were uncomfortable with staff having relationships with students, which they described as ‘predatory’. (The 1752 Group is a research and lobby organisation working to end sexual misconduct in higher education.)

When I was an undergraduate (in a London polytechnic), I remember one young woman in my year forming a relationship with a lecturer within weeks of starting there.

Someone commented that the lecturer had a different ‘girlfriend’ every year, and so it appeared, as the following year, another fresher was seen walking round holding hands with him, and later, found sobbing in a toilet when they’d split up.

It’s not necessarily a problem. Or it wouldn’t appear to be a problem if the lecturer had only had one relationship in the three years I was there (rather than a succession of young and attractive-looking students) and if he wasn’t in his 40s and the student in her late teens. And if he wasn’t one of her supervising lecturers.

And, of course, sobbing in the toilets could also be a result of a relationship with another student.

There’s a spectrum of acceptability: From a lecturer in their 50s dating an 18-year-old student, to a postgraduate student getting into a relationship with a supervisor, to a mature student and a lecturer of a similar age with no supervisory responsibility.

Would a blanket ban on any relationships between staff and students even be necessary or advisable? If a staff member is a supervisor of a student, that could easily be seen as problematic, and the possibility of favouritism is very real. As is the possibility of retribution if the relationship ended just before an assessment or an exam.

University College London has become the first Russell Group university to introduce a ban on romantic and sexual relationships between lecturers and their students. Even staff in a close personal or intimate relationship with a student they do not supervise must declare it a within a month or face disciplinary action.

Of course, it’s not just in higher education where a supervisor/junior relationship might cause problems.

Any work situation where the relationship partners are not equals in the hierarchy can result in awkwardness if the relationship ends – accusations of bias and favouritism, even false accusations, or actual revenge when things don’t happen in the desired manner. None of which is good in a work environment.

We’ve seen this a lot recently. Harvey Weinstein, surprisingly, has been convicted.

Others have apparently got away with sexual harassment, too many to mention but let’s just start with US supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas. More recently, Brett Kavanaugh actually was appointed to the supreme court. A reward for an alpha male exercising his dominance?

In the wake of #MeToo, it’s probably good that UK universities are taking this seriously. How much better to avoid a nasty situation cropping up by making it clear that having a bit of a fling with a student is not acceptable. No, not for a female staff member and a male student, either.

It’s just a pity that this has to be legislated for (at least, within the confines of an educational institution). How much better it would be if people of all genders could just, you know, behave themselves where personal and working relationships are concerned?

If only there were no exploitative and unequal ‘relationships’ in universities, and other workplaces; if there were no bosses who demand young partners; or big film producers or male actors who appear to only date women under 25 despite being in their 40s.

Don’t get me started on the actor who was told she was too old, at 37, to play the love interest of an actor who was 55 years old. It’s obviously considered normal for women under 35 to desire men over 50. Believe me, it isn’t.

Now, universities, like many other institutions, are closed. But given the precarious nature of many jobs, it’s more important than ever that there are protections for employees to avoid vindictive dismissals and sustained harassment.

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