Written by Joanna Hughes

Universities Australia has introduced a new framework recommending that universities bar relationships between PhD students and their advisors. Here’s a closer look at the guidelines, along with insiders say it’s necessary, according to The Guardian.

“A Genuine Power Imbalance”

“Occasionally, supervisor and student enter into a sexual relationship. This can be for a number of reasons, ranging from a desire to please to a need for power over youth. These affairs can sometimes lead to permanent relationships. However, what remains from the supervisor-student relationship is the asymmetric set of power balances,” proposed The Conversation in 2016.

Now, Australia’s peak body for universities has moved to end this “genuine power imbalance” and resultant student susceptibility to exploitation with the release of recommendations for universities requiring PhD advisors to step down from their mentorship positions when relationships become sexual or romantic.

Coinciding with the first anniversary of the anti-sexual violence and harassment campaign, Respect Now Always, Universities Australia also calls on universities to respond promptly to complaints and concerns. “A student’s academic progress must never depend on consenting to a sexual relationship with their supervisor or a member of staff,” cautions the guidelines.

Following Universities’ Lead

Australian Labor Party education spokesperson Tanya Plibersek told ABC News that it’s “extraordinary” that formal policies are not already in place. “It’s a sensible thing to clarify it, although it amazes me that it hasn’t already been clear to people,” said Plibersek.

According to Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson, the establishment of the policy followed the lead of universities as opposed to emerging in response to a particular issue or incident.

In addition to mandating that staff members remove themselves from “supervisory, teaching or assessment roles involving students with whom they are in a relationship,” the framework also requires universities to have policies in place outlining how alternative arrangements will be determined. 

It is also recommended that supervisory panels and/or “co-supervisory arrangements” could help reduce the risk to students in niche fields with limited specialists.

In addition to protecting its PhD students, should Australia also be angling to optimize their potential in the workforce? Learn more about that here

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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