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Sexual or romantic relationships between an academic supervisor and their student are never appropriate, new university sector principles confirm.

Universities Australia has today released Principles for Respectful Supervisory Relationships (PDF 202.4KB) as part of our 10-point Action Plan under the university sector's proactive Respect. Now. Always. initiative.

These follow the release last week of another important action under the plan — a set of Guidelines for University Responses to Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment (PDF 163.5KB).

The principles were developed jointly by Universities Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations and the Australian Council of Graduate Research.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the principles underpin any direct supervisory relationship between an academic supervisor and their research student.

This includes postgraduate students doing a PhD or masters.

“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,” Ms Jackson said.

"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.

“These principles relate to relationships between academics and the research students directly under their supervision.”

"They have been designed to protect the safety and wellbeing of both students and staff.”

Many universities already require a supervisor to make alternative supervision arrangements if a romantic or sexual relationship develops with a student that they are supervising.

This is often included in university policies, including in codes of conduct and conflict of interest statements.
Under these principles, universities move the staff member from supervisory roles involving that student — and establish alternative supervision arrangements.

"Communicating these principles to staff and students helps us to build further awareness about expectations of conduct so it is clear to everyone in university communities."

Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations President Natasha Abrahams welcomed the principles.

"These principles recognise that postgraduate research students rely heavily on their supervisors for success in their studies and in their research career,” Ms Abrahams said.

“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."

The National President of the National Tertiary Education Union, Jeannie Rea said: “These principles will contribute to influencing changes in attitudes and behaviours of not only those engaged in the supervisory relationship, but also reinforce universities’ responsibilities for maintaining a safe and respectful working and study environment.”

ACGR’s convenor Professor Sue Berners-Price said the principles would help to underscore expectations on conduct.

“A culture of mutual respect and equality is crucial to a safe and supportive research training environment for all,” Professor Berners-Price said.

“These principles will help universities reinforce this.”

Universities Australia Media Contacts

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Bella Counihan
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James Giggacher
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