As we set out in our Global Regulatory Spotlight published in February 2024Safeguarding and Vulnerability – A Consideration for All, it is accepted that we all now live in a society where the behaviours and cultures within businesses/organisations will likely be measured against safeguarding principles, both nationally and internationally, and where, if we want to provide a safe and supportive environment for all who work in and/or come into contact with our business/organisation, we must be able to demonstrate a robust and successful safeguarding culture, which has been embedded across the whole business/organisation. 

The education sector, and universities in particular, is a sector that has come under increased scrutiny in terms of behaviours and cultures since the advent of the #MeToo movement in October 2017 and Everyone’s Invited in June 2020.

This has led Cambridge University to publish a new set of rules due to come into force on 1 July 2024, which includes a warning against behaviour “that could be interpreted as flirtatious” towards members of staff and bans relationships between staff and students. This is a significant cultural shift as the existing relationships policy only stipulates that student-staff relationships should “be avoided.”

The changes made by Cambridge University reflect current thinking in this area, which has already been implemented at other universities including Oxford, University College London, Nottingham and Exeter, all of which have already banned sexual relationships between staff and students.

Cambridge said the policy was designed to protect staff and students from conflict-of-interest allegations, and to ensure safeguards are in place to prevent sexual misconduct. It notes that personal relationships of a sexual or other intimate nature between a member of staff and a student, with whom that member of staff also has a professional connection, give rise to an actual or apparent conflict of interest. In particular, such a relationship creates, or may reasonably be perceived to create a risk of favouritism or abuse of authority. It goes on to say that members of staff are under a duty to act with integrity and not to place themselves in a position of actual or apparent conflict and in order to do so personal relationship of a sexual or other intimate nature between a member of staff and a student, with whom that member of staff also has a professional connection should be avoided.

The updated policy notes that the risks of such accusations “are likely to be heightened where there is a significant age difference between the staff member and the student” or if the student is vulnerable and that the policy could apply even within “seemingly consensual relationships between students and relevant staff members”.

University employees will be granted a one-month amnesty until 1 August to disclose any current or past relationships with students, or close friendships with pupils.

Disclosures under the policy must be made immediately to the member of staff’s Head of Department (or equivalent post holder) or (if the member of staff would prefer) to a senior member of the HR Division who will speak to the Head of Department (or equivalent post holder) on their behalf. 

To avoid any confusion, the policy states that if a member of staff is unsure whether or not a relationship with a student should be disclosed under this policy, the member of staff should disclose it. 

Following disclosure, the person to whom the disclosure has been made will ensure as appropriate that the student is aware of the disclosure and that alternative arrangements are put in place to avoid the member of staff having any professional connection with the student.

Failure to comply with this policy, or any arrangements which are put in place under it, may be treated as a disciplinary matter. which could result in staff members being dismissed in the most serious cases.

The breadth of application of the policy is evident from the wide definitions given to a number of key concepts with the policy including:

  • Member of staff - includes any person who is engaged by the University as an employee or worker and/or who holds a University office or post, as well as any person to whom the University makes available any of the privileges or facilities normally afforded to its employees - where graduate students are working for the University in a teaching or related capacity, this policy will apply to them in that capacity as if they were employees of the University
  • Student - includes any person pursuing a course of study leading to the award of a degree, diploma, or certificate of the University
  • Professional connection - means any arrangement where a person in his or her capacity as a member of staff has any academic, pastoral or administrative or similar responsibility for a student, including for supervising, tutoring, teaching, selecting, assessing, protecting, safeguarding, or providing a reference for, the student; and
  • Personal relationship - means any association, however brief, of a sexual or other intimate nature, either in person or remotely (for example, via social media, email or text messaging).

In 2022 Universities UK, which describes itself as the collective voice of 142 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, urged universities to update their relationships policies in a bid to “change the culture of higher education”.

For those readers of the blog who operate in the education and university sector, this article should serve as a timely reminder to review any existing relationships policy or consider the introduction of one if it does not exist.

For insurers in the education and university sector consideration should be made to seeking evidence as to the organisations approach to employee/student relationships, as the practice of banning sexual relationships between staff and students in these sectors is fast becoming the prevailing professional standard of the day.