Universities UK (UUK) has said the use of gagging orders to silence victims of abuse “will not be tolerated”.
The university membership body was responding to allegations that non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are being used to prevent allegations of mistreatment being made public.
Warwick University signed the most NDAs of any Russell Group university last year, figures reveal.
The institution signed off 339 ‘gagging’ orders last year. Exeter University and Oxford University were the second and third highest users, with 159 and 68 contracts signed respectively.
The proliferation of NDAs has been criticised by MPs who warn they could be used to cover up complaints of sexual harassment or bullying. NDAs have legitimately been used to protect research or commercially sensitive information.
A number of academics have since taken their concerns public including former Liverpool University professor Anahid Kassabian who told the BBC she felt mistreated and “bullied out” after she was diagnosed with cancer. Liverpool University strenuously refutes the allegations.
Emma Chapman, formerly an astrophysicist at University College London, revealed she was offered a £70,000 payout after alleging she was sexually harassed at work. She refused to sign the contract and said: “NDAs are routinely used in cases of sexual misconduct in higher education, applied to multiple victims of serial harassers, and can total over £100,000 per harasser.”
A BBC Freedom of Information request has revealed the number of NDAs being used by universities. Since 2017, UK universities spent £87m on pay-offs with NDAs. Ninety-six universities responded to the FOI request and revealed they signed off 4,000 settlements in the past two years.
UUK said an NDA “does not prevent staff or students from reporting criminal acts to the police or regulatory bodies, or from making a disclosure under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998”.
UUK said in a statement: “Universities use non-disclosure agreements for many purposes, including the protection of commercially sensitive information related to university research.
“However, we also expect senior leaders to make it clear that the use of confidentiality clauses to prevent victims from speaking out will not be tolerated.
“All staff and students are entitled to a safe experience at university and all universities have a duty to ensure this outcome.”
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