The universities minister has told the higher educations sector it is “wholly inappropriate” to use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in cases of sexual harassment or abuse – and implored sector leaders to take a “proactive approach” after disturbing testimonies from HE surfaced online.
Michelle Donelan said testimonies of misconduct, abuse and harassment published on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website were a wake-up call to the sector. “The seriousness with which I know you all take your safeguarding responsibilities makes it especially disturbing,” Donelan wrote on 3 July.
“The picture painted by the testimonies is not reflective of the safe and inclusive HE experience that we are all striving to provide students. However, we cannot deny the scale of testimonies relating to the HE sector and we must take all reports of harassment, abuse and assault seriously,” she continued.
The picture painted by the testimonies is not reflective of the safe and inclusive HE experience that we are all striving to provide students
– Michelle Donelan, universities minister
Donelan said the founders of ‘Everyone’s Invited’ shared the government’s “particular concerns relating to the misuse of Non-Disclosure Agreements”.
The usage of such confidentiality contracts is “wholly inappropriate”, Donelan warned, adding: “This lack of transparency does not encourage students or staff to come forward”.
In February 2020, a BBC investigation revealed that universities spent more than £1.3m on NDAs with students since 2016, although not all related to sexual assault or harassment cases. Universities UK (UUK) has said the use of gagging orders to silence victims of abuse “will not be tolerated”.
The minister reminded the sector that the government planned to bring forth legislation to address the inappropriate use of NDAs across the public and private sectors. A pre-legislation government consultation warned employers it was wrong to use agreements that “prevent disclosures to the police, regulated health and care professionals and legal professionals” or inhibit whistleblowing. Donelan has instructed the Department for Education to “explore options for going further in this area”, she added.
Universities should also address “perceived inconsistencies” in how they report the number of cases of assault, harassment and abuse within the staff and student communities, Donelan added.
The Office for Students has instructed universities in England to urgently review how they handle complaints of sexual assault, misconduct and harassment after a raft of testimonies were published on the Everyone’s Invited website earlier this year. Donelan said reviewing procedures was “the minimum that providers should be doing”. She highlighted recent safeguarding advice for schools prepared by Ofsted as an example of the sort of measures universities could take.