University College London has become the first Russell Group university to introduce a ban on romantic and sexual relationships between lecturers and their students.
UCL said the personal relationships policy would protect against potential abuses of power and conflicts of interest.
The policy prohibits “close personal and intimate relationships between staff and students where the staff member has a direct responsibility for, or involvement in, that student’s academic studies and/or personal welfare”.
It also obliges staff to declare a close personal or intimate relationship with any other student, who they do not directly supervise, within a month or face disciplinary action.
The policy says staff should “maintain an appropriate physical and emotional distance from students”.
Staff should try to “avoid creating special friendships with students, as this may be seen as grooming”; should only contact students via official university channels; and should try to avoid giving their personal mobile phone number, or meeting students outside the university.
All other staff will also be required to disclose close personal or intimate relationships with other members of staff where the relationship may present a conflict of interest.
The policy also prohibits staff from close and intimate relationships with “at risk” adults, which could include people with a disability, whether they are students or other staff, and with students or staff under 18.
Kelsey Paske, the behaviour and culture change manager at UCL, said the ban was informed by “the need to recognise positions of power and power imbalances within higher education settings, and to help prevent abuses of power”. Paske added: “The decision to prohibit certain relationships was centred on protecting both students and staff.”
Rachel Watters, the women’s officer for the National Union of Students, said: “Given the public focus on sexual misconduct in higher education and elsewhere, we would hope and expect more universities to revise their policies in similar ways.”
Only two other UK universities, Greenwich and Roehampton, have bans on sexual relationships between lecturers and their students, a Guardian investigation has found. It is understood that another university is in the process of implementing a ban.
The investigation, in which freedom of information requests were issued to 122 universities, found only seven members of staff had been disciplined by universities for relationships with students in the past five years.
Although 97 universities have policies on relationships between staff and students, many only discourage them.
Dr Anna Bull of the 1752 Group, which campaigns against sexual misconduct by university staff, said: “UCL’s new policy is the most stringent in the UK. If it is implemented as intended, it will help to enable a safer and more gender equal teaching and learning environment.”
She said the lack of similar policies in other universities suggested they were “not taking seriously the risks associated with the power imbalances between staff and students”.
Last month, Natasha Caruana, a lecturer at the University of the Arts London, said she had resigned from her previous university, the University for the Creative Arts, owing to concerns about inappropriate relationships between staff and students.
“I stood up for what I knew was the correct and ethical way of behaving,” she wrote on Instagram. “There is a rich history of male academics having special friendships with female students … and it won’t change until more of us call it out and put pressure on universities to change their policies.”
A spokesperson for the University for the Creative Arts said: “We wholeheartedly reject the picture as presented in the social media post. UCA has robust policies in place to protect the wellbeing of our students and staff. We have acted – and will continue to act – swiftly and decisively whenever we receive allegations of improper conduct.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We take any form of harassment in universities extremely seriously, and expect universities to have robust policies and procedures.”
A 2018 survey by the 1752 Group and the NUS found that four-fifths of students said they were uncomfortable with staff having relationships with students, which they described as “predatory”.