'Academia was meant to be my safe space': Why university student-staff relationships could be banned

Dr Alix Dietzel and former student Sunday Blake tell ITV News Correspondent Rachel Townsend their experiences of alleged abuse and grooming by university senior members of staff

University staff-student relationships could soon be banned under new proposals by the higher education regulator in a bid to tackle sexual misconduct and harassment on campus.

The Office for Students will recommend next month that "personal relationships" between staff and students at universities and colleges in England must be declared or prohibited.

Staff who keep relationships secret could be disciplined or dismissed, under the new proposals set to be announced next month.

Some argue a blanket ban is too heavy handed and would affect the student-staff relationships that are consensual - but others told ITV News that something must be urgently done to put a stop to the abuse of power and exploitation that goes unchecked in higher education.

Former student Sunday Blake told how her alleged abusive relationship with a senior member of staff drove her to attempt suicide.

"Academia was meant to be my safe space, it was meant to be where people understand me," she told ITV News. "I got there and it was so unsafe for me."

Sunday Blake told how she felt 'used and objectified' following her alleged abusive relationship with a staff member

Sunday said she feared speaking out and going up against "potentially thousands of members of staff" who may support him.

"He represented the institution to me... Who would believe me?” she added.

“I ended up taking an overdose. I tried to kill myself - and I’m not ashamed to say that because I was under so much pressure and I was so isolated."

She told how she had worked so hard to get into university but was left feeling "used and objectified".

"I felt like my intellect didn’t matter, the only thing that mattered was my body because somebody had used that," continued Sunday. "I went further into dependence into him because he was the only person who knew. And that’s what he wanted.”

'It started with small things like come to my office to discuss a book'

Sunday's story resonates with Dr Alix Dietzel, who claims she was groomed while she was a postgraduate.

“It started with small things like 'come to my office to discuss a book' or 'we should go get coffee instead, the office is a bit too dark'," she told ITV News. "So there was always this underlying power dynamic.

"And post graduate students want to be approved by these academics, it's very important to them to be taken seriously as professionals."

Now, working as a university academic herself, she says she has greater clarity on her own exploitation. “I have 19-year-old students and I just look at them and think it would be so easy to manipulate them because they really look up to you and they come to you with their personal problems," added Dr Alix.

"They really need you at that stage of life. But I can also see how wrong it would be."

However, experts argue it is difficult to stop this kind of abuse of power because it is difficult to quantify. Students are over the age of 18 and often relationships are consensual.

Senior lecturer at York University, Dr Anna Bull, led the most recent study into staff sexual misconduct at UK universities. Her research showed 80% of students were uncomfortable at the thought of relationships with staff.

"So I think it's pretty clear that students don't want this," she said, adding that they are often more vulnerable because they’re away from home for the first time.

"I'm not really sure why university lecturers should be in a different position to other professionals who are in a position of trust towards other adults - doctors, therapists, social workers - they all have really clear ethical codes of conduct.

"Why are university lecturers any different?"

In a bid to tackle the issue, some universities - Oxford, UCL, Nottingham and Exeter - have already implemented a ban on staff-student relationships, while postgraduates and staff at York University have run workshops to highlight sexual harassment.

And more universities may soon be forced to follow with a ban.

Dr Alix Dietzel, working as an academic herself, now has greater clarity on her alleged grooming. Credit: ITV News

Though the Office for Students said its preferred option was to make universities keep a register of staff-student relationships, it warned a ban could also be introduced.

The University and College Union (UCU) acknowledged the number of staff-student relationships is an institutional problem. But it told ITV News that a blanket ban is a blunt tool as it would, for example, preclude the spouse of a staff member undertaking a programme of study as a mature student.

It added the most important thing is that institutions have clear policies in place to make sure there is no abuse of power.

"There might be many happy, successful relationships but there is definitely - and we have very clear evidence to show this - that there is a heightened risk of these abuses of power occurring," said Dr Anna.

"If you think about it, university lecturers are likely to be older, likely to be richer, they definitely have higher educational qualifications and they've got more status within the institution."

Dr Alix believes there is a reluctance among university bosses to tackle the issue due to "old fashioned views" of higher education.

"I think it's a kind of old fashioned view of how academia operates," she said.

"We're supposed to be the intellectual elite of society, we're supposed to be professionals who know how to conduct ourselves. So it is quite difficult to regulate."

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