Policy on Staff/Student Personal Relationships, effective from 1 September 2021 

Policy Statement

In reading this Policy, please refer to scope and definitions in section 2 and section 8.

1.1. The University of Exeter expects its staff to apply the highest standards of professionalism in their relationships with students.

1.2. Relationships between staff and students should recognise the University’s legal, regulatory and ethical obligations to provide a high quality, supportive and safe learning environment for all of our students. Our commitment to create and maintain a supportive, inclusive, working and learning environment will enable staff and students to fulfil their personal potential.

1.3. The University recognises the benefits of an active university community where interaction between colleagues, staff and students is a positive aspect. However, we should also recognise that the inherent nature of staff and student roles means that staff are in a position of power relative to a student, irrespective of the student’s age, maturity and level of study. Therefore staff must always act in a professional, respectful and fair manner, recognising this differential of power and influence

1.4. There is potential for sexual misconduct to occur due to the power and influence imbalance between staff and students. Consequently, intimate relationships between staff and students will always be unacceptable.

1.5. Under the Sexual Offences Act (2003) it is a criminal offence to enter into sexual activity with a person under the age of 18 where the adult is in a position of trust. The University believes that all staff are in a position of trust. Please refer to the Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedure.

1.6. To ensure the policy is being followed, members of staff and student members of staff must declare to the University any close personal relationships. Such declarations should be made at the earliest opportunity so that an assessment can be made of any potential conflict of interest and influence.  

 Appendix A: Conflict of Interest and Influence Guidelines

 2.1. This policy covers all staff and students of the University of Exeter. For the purpose of this policy:

  •  a member of staff means anyone employed by the University. This will include a student of the University who is engaged to provide teaching or assessment to other students. It also applies (with appropriate modifications, where necessary) to other individuals not employed by the University who are acting for the University to provide education or pastoral care services for students or are involved in making decisions on a student’s selection, education, assessment or progression.
  • a student means any current undergraduate, taught postgraduate or postgraduate research student whether full time or part time, regardless of whether they study on campus, off campus or online. It includes deferred students, interrupted students and visiting students (e.g. Erasmus). For the avoidance of doubt, this includes University employees who are students on degree apprenticeship programmes and postgraduate research students who are also employed to provide teaching or assessment to other students. 

2.2.        Relationships

For the purpose of this policy there are two types of relationship. They are collectively referred to as personal relationships:

  • an intimate relationship - including marital, life partner, sexual and romantic, regardless of gender, gender identity or sexual orientation, and which is consensual.
  • a close personal relationship - a close personal relationship is with a relative or close family friend, or a relationship where there is financial dependence.

 

3.1. When dealing with students (in any capacity) a member of staff should recognise that they are in a position of trust, and that it is their professional and ethical responsibility not to abuse that trust. Academic staff are trusted to teach, guide and supervise students. We expect all staff to recognise and maintain professional boundaries, in order to provide students a high quality supportive and safe learning environment, to avoid abuse of trust through the imbalance of power and influence, and to avoid perceived or actual conflicts of interest.

3.2. It is recognised that staff members with responsibility for supervising postgraduate students should recognise the particular imbalance of power in these relationships and the intersectional vulnerabilities this creates for these students:   

3.3. Consequently, for the avoidance of doubt, members of staff:

  • must not pursue or enter into an intimate relationship with a student. Intimate relationships can lead to perceived or actual conflicts of interest, which can have a detrimental effect on the teaching, research and learning environment for other students and colleagues.
    • must not create or participate in an environment where the pursuit of an intimate relationship is normalised or acceptable.
    • must ensure interactions with students are always professional and appropriate, avoiding conduct towards students that is unprofessional, inappropriate or in any way sexualised.
    • must maintain professional relationships with students based on trust, confidence and equal treatment of all students.
    • should not (where possible) enter into a close personal relationship (see section 2.2) with a student for whom they have a responsibility – for example in the areas of teaching/learning/research, assessment, selection, pastoral care or research. Close personal relationships can lead to perceived or actual conflicts of interest, which can have a detrimental effect on the teaching and learning environment for other students and colleagues.
    • must not promise or allude to rewards in return for sexual favours or suggest or threaten the withdrawal of teaching or other forms of academic support if sexual access is not granted. Such behaviour constitutes serious or gross misconduct and will be subject to disciplinary proceedings, the consequence of which can include dismissal from the University.
    • must not purchase transactional sex from any student.

3.4.  This policy covers all areas of the University. Any intimate relationship between a member of staff and a student raises questions about consent, the imbalance of authority and influence, conflict of interest, trust and/or confidentiality which may occur at the outset, during, or on the termination of a relationship. Such conflicts, as outlined above may arise in relation to the following areas (this list is not exhaustive):

  • supervision of any student
  • deployment of financial and other resources
  • all aspects of teaching and learning, including assessment and selection
  • access to confidential information
  • access to Student Services including financial assistance, accommodation and other services
  • matters including employment, career opportunities, placements, complaints and discipline
  • assignment of paid work and facilities to students
  • pastoral care
  • Indirect influence on other staff or students

3.5.  Professional boundaries should be the norm for all staff and, for example, meetings, seminars, PhD supervisions, etc. should normally take place on campus and students should not normally be invited into staff members’ homes. Exceptions may be understandable where students are involved in a research group, and they are meeting in a group social context (in the home of a member of staff or in another social setting off campus) or on field trips.

3.6.  Students should be engaged for work that is undertaken for staff at the University following the business guidelines. Staff should not engage students to work in their home, for example dog walking, child minding, babysitting, etc.

3.7.  Social media has provided a platform for staff to share, collaborate and network globally. These additional dimensions can be a real benefit. However, of the use of social media can blur professional boundaries and so staff should conduct themselves with common sense and act with professionalism and integrity in their interactions with students. For more information please see the social media policy for employees and the social media guidelines.

3.8.  Staff are expected to communicate with students via University accounts linked to their role, for example University email addresses, telephone numbers, and Teams. We recognise that there may be times, for example during field trips, where this is not possible. We recognise this and expect staff to follow the GDPR regulations and conduct themselves with common sense and act with professionalism and integrity.

3.9.  Relationships which are coerced, coercive, exploitative or sexualised are always unacceptable and must not occur.

3.10.  For the avoidance of doubt, it is not acceptable for PGR students who are engaged to carry out teaching/learning activities to have intimate relationships with students that they have a direct responsibility for. The same issues of power, influence and consent are present in these situations.

3.11.  Any student who exerts sexual pressure over a member of staff, or who behaves in a coercive or predatory manner towards a member of staff, will be subject to the University’s student disciplinary procedure, the consequences of which can include expulsion from the University.

4.1.  This section applies to:

  • an intimate relationship or close personal relationship which existed prior to this code of conduct coming into effect on 1st September 2021.
  • an intimate relationship or close personal relationship between a current member of staff and a student which existed prior to one of the partners becoming a member of staff or becoming a student at the University. A declaration will also be necessary where a member of staff may be involved in selection/acceptance of a prospective student who they have an intimate or close personal relationship with.

4.2.  It is the responsibility of the member of staff to declare their relationship to the University at the earliest opportunity (following procedures notified by the University) so that an assessment can be made of any potential conflict of interest and influence. We recognise that this information is confidential, sensitive information and it will be shared only with the Head of Department, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor and HR Business Partner of the College, unless a conflict of interest and influence plan requires notification to any other person(s). The member of staff and (if appropriate) the student involved will be consulted before it is shared with anyone else. The details of any action needed will be recorded in a conflict of interest and influence plan.

4.3.  An intimate relationship which existed prior to this code of conduct coming into effect on 1st September 2021. We will be setting a deadline for declarations in the New Year. 

4.4.  An intimate relationship which existed before both partners became members of the University should be declared within one month of both partners becoming members of the University.

4.5. We will shortly be updating this with how to declare using a beta microsoft form. 

5.1.  Appendix A gives guidance on how managers should assess and manage conflicts of interest and influence. In particular, staff should not:

  • have any responsibility for aspects of the student’s work which require judgement, e.g. academic assessment.
  • be in a position to take decisions affecting the student, including the provision or withholding of any of the following: facilities for research; the allocation of places on courses, bursaries, or scholarships for research.

5.2.  Where a potential or actual conflict of interest or influence is identified, a conflict of interest and influence plan should be prepared in discussion with the member of staff and the Head of Department/Line Manager to ensure that appropriate action is taken to minimise the potential effect of the relationship on other staff or students, and to protect the member of staff and student. The member of staff will be required to comply with the actions specified in the conflict of interest and influence plan. A record of the conflict of interest and influence plan will be retained on their HR file. It is good practice to review the conflict of interest and influence plan annually (for example at the start of each academic year), or more frequently if necessary.

5.3.  If it is agreed that there is no conflict of interest or influence, this should be notified in writing (via email) to the member of staff and a record placed on their file. The University reserves the right to review this if circumstances change.

5.4.  Where an intimate relationship breaks down, the University expects that the member of staff and the student will continue to conduct themselves in an appropriate and professional manner. The conflict of interest and influence plan should be reviewed and consideration given to whether the actions should be maintained.

6.1. After the adoption of this policy by the University on 1 September 2021, no member of staff should commence or pursue an intimate relationship with a student. Should this event occur, this will be a breach of the policy and the University will manage this through the staff disciplinary procedure as potential gross misconduct, which could lead to dismissal.

6.2. Failure on the part of a member of staff to declare an intimate relationship or a close personal relationship with a student (as set out in section 4) may result in disciplinary action being taken for non-disclosure. The University will manage this through the staff disciplinary procedure as potential gross misconduct which could lead to dismissal.

6.3. Staff who are uncertain about what action to take should seek guidance from their HR Business Partner. Recognising that details of relationships are sensitive information, staff may also wish to speak informally and confidentially to a Dignity and Respect Adviser.

7.1. Where a student considers they have been personally adversely affected by a misuse of power, influence, or authority or by a conflict of interest, they should raise it with the Head of their Department or the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of their College in the first instance.

7.2. Where a member of staff considers they have been personally adversely affected by a misuse of power, influence, or authority or by a conflict of interest, they should raise it with their line manager, Pro-Vice-Chancellor/Director of Service or HR Business Partner in the first instance.

7.3. Formal complaints can be submitted through the Student Complaints Procedure, Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedure for students, Policy on Dignity at Work and Study, or staff Grievance Procedure.

7.4. Students and members of staff can speak informally to a Dignity and Respect Advisor or a Speak Out Guardian before following any of the steps above.

7.5. Where the University is made aware of a relationship, following the steps above or other means, appropriate action will be taken to investigate and manage this as sensitively as possible. Appropriate action will be taken which may result in disciplinary action.

8.1. Abuse of power: All staff must recognise the power imbalance by the very nature of the staff and student relationship and always act in a respectful and fair manner. Where staff use their position of power or authority in an       unacceptable manner, this is abuse of power. Abuse of power can take various forms and may include, but is    not limited to, coercion, bullying, manipulation, putting pressure on others to engage      in conduct they do not feel comfortable with and sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct may include, but is not limited to, sexual or gender-based violence including sexual harassment, sexual assault, grooming, coercion and bullying, sexual demands, propositions and exchanges, verbal and non-verbal communications, and the creation of a sexualised environment.

8.2. Consent to an intimate relationship: In order to have an intimate relationship consent must be given, but individuals must have the choice, freedom and capacity to give consent. It should not be assumed that this is always the case. The person seeking consent must ensure that it is freely given and is an informed decision. They must also be aware that it can be withdrawn at any time and past consent does not mean present consent.

8.3. Freedom to consent: In order to have freedom to consent a person must not fear the result of not consenting. A person is not free to choose if, for example, they are being threatened or they could perceive they are being threatened, if their studies and assessments could be affected, if their future career could be affected or a power imbalance means they are being pressurised to commence or continue the relationship.  The University takes the position that where there is an imbalance of power it is unlikely that consent can be freely given out of choice.

8.4. Capacity to consent: In order to have the capacity to consent a person must have the mental and physically capacity to consent. This can be a one off or an ongoing situation. For example capacity to consent may be affected by the influence of drugs or alcohol or the presence of a cognitive or learning difficulty, or mental health condition. Staff also need to be aware that an intimate relationship with a student under the age of 18 is covered in the Sexual Offences Act (2003), please see sexual misconduct policy (link) for more information.

8.5. Sexualised: In this policy the use of the word sexualised means to make sexual, or attribute sex or a sex role to a situation or to give sexual associations to a situation.