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Australia rolls out “united front” against supervisor-student relationships

University staff who engage in sexual or romantic relationships with their students are harming the research and learning environment, according to a new set of principles which aim to protect academics and students in Australia.

"Academics actually should know better." The principles have been welcomed by the intled community. Photo: UA

The principles recommend universities have explicit policies that specify actions in the case a relationship develops

The Principles for Respectful Supervisory Relationships, developed by Universities Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations and the Australian Council of Graduate Research, confirms the inappropriateness of intimate relationships between academic supervisors and research students due to inherent power imbalances.

“These principles make it clear — if a university academic is supervising a student, then they should not be in a romantic or sexual relationship with that student. It’s a clear conflict of interest,” UA chief executive Catriona Jackson said.

“We are united across the sector that romantic relationships between supervisors and students are unethical”

“Universities understand that supervisors have power over their students. A sexual or romantic relationship that develops in that context also raises questions about capacity for consent and academic integrity,” she said.

The international education community has welcomed the principles.

“This is a great first step, and the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health really welcomes the initiative that UA are undertaking to rectify this issue in a more holistic way,” said Alison Coelho, co-manager of CEH.

Coehlo told The PIE News international postgraduate students would particularly benefit from the principles because of cultural differences and racially-motivated targeting.

“There’s a whole range of things about the vulnerability of students, no matter what background they’re from,” she said.

“In a workplace, it might be your boss, and you’re a staff member, but in a university, we’re talking about students that are more likely to be a lot younger, less experienced. If we’re talking about international students they don’t have the support network around them, they don’t know what is okay and not okay.

“Academics should know better than to pick young partners”

“Academics actually should know better than to deliberately pick young women or young men to have a relationship with.”

She added CEH awaited further guidelines specific to the needs of international students and the undergraduate population.

Released on the one-year anniversary of the Change the Course report into sexual harassment and assault on campus, the principles recommend universities have explicit policies that specify actions in the case a relationship develops, including removal of the staff member and alternative arrangements.

The document outlines that constructive professional relationships between academic staff and students are built on mutual respect, and advises universities clearly articulate the expectations, roles and responsibilities of students and their supervisors.

“These principles recognise that postgraduate research students rely heavily on their supervisors for success in their studies and in their research career,” said Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations president Natasha Abrahams

“We now have a united viewpoint across the sector that romantic relationships between supervisors and students are unethical, just like any other power-imbalanced relationship such as that between a doctor and their patient.”

“Universities understand that supervisors have power over their students”

According to the 2017 Change the Course report, 1.4% of international students were sexually assaulted on universities campuses, slightly less than their domestic counterparts. The report, however, acknowledged confusion over sexual assault as a barrier.

In one case study, a PhD student who was kissed on the lips by her supervisor during their first meeting said she was unsure if this was part of Australian culture or inappropriate behaviour.

Principles for Respectful Supervisory Relationships is the latest in UA’s Respect. Now. Always. campaign, after the release of a set of guidelines for universities to respond to sexual assault and harassment in late July.

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