Almost a third of UK universities have been silencing student grievances with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), according to data obtained by the BBC.
Since 2016, the gagging clauses have been used to prevent complainants speaking out on issues including poor teaching, disability support, sexual assault, accommodation, false advertising and bullying.
The Next Episode podcast used Freedom of Information requests to determine that around 300 NDAs had been signed in total, with universities paying individuals sums ranging from £250 to almost £40,000.
The aggregate cost came to over £1.3m.
Forty-five of the 134 universities that responded to the BBC said they had used NDAs.
“NDAs can be legitimate and beneficial to both parties in certain circumstances, but any measure that serves to prevent students from raising or pursuing serious concerns or complaints should not be used by universities,” Kris Robbetts, a specialist education lawyer at VWV, told UB.
“Given the likely imbalance of power between institutions and individuals – and the possibility that students are not legally represented – there is a risk that a purported settlement is suppressive. Disclosure restrictions may be more onerous than the law will allow and complainants may find it difficult or even impossible to seek the support they need to move on.”
The BBC reported that “students said they felt pressured to sign non-disclosure agreements and one was told she would be expelled if she broke her contract”.
Any measure that serves to prevent students from raising or pursuing serious concerns or complaints should not be used by universities
– Kris Robbetts, VWV
Universities UK said NDAs should not be used to silence students, while the Government called the practice “unacceptable” and said it was legislating to prevent NDA misuse across the board.
“The Government is responding to these concerns in relation to discrimination and harassment cases, proposing legislation aimed at redressing the balance,” explained Robbetts.
“Measures are expected that will protect the ability of complainants to make disclosures to the police and regulated health and care professionals and guarantee access to independent legal advice. There is, of course, also an obligation on lawyers as regulated practitioners to ensure that NDAs are drafted responsibly and are appropriate for the context in question.”