Vice-chancellors pledge to end the use of NDAs

Minister asks universities to sign up to a pledge promising not to use NDAs in dealing with complaints of sexual misconduct, bullying, and other forms of harassment

Higher and further education minister Michelle Donelan has today launched a new pledge against the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in sexual misconduct cases.

Backed by MPs, campaign groups, vice chancellors, and the National Union of Students, the minister is asking all vice-chancellors to sign up to the pledge, which commits them in writing to “not using non-disclosure agreements to silence people who come forward to raise complaints of sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, or other forms of harassment and bullying.”

Buckinghamshire New University, the University of Cambridge, the University of Exeter, Goldsmiths, the University of Keele, and UCL have already signed the pledge. The latter had already confirmed in 2019  that it would no longer use NDAs in settlement agreements with individuals who have complained of sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying.

The use of non-disclosure agreements to buy victims’ silence is a far cry from their proper purpose​, ​for example to protect trade secrets. I am determined to see this shabby practice stamped out on our campuses – Michelle Donelan

“Sexual harassment is horrendous and complainants should never be bought or bullied into silence simply to protect the reputation of their university,” said Donelan, who first raised her concerns over NDAs with vice-chancellors in a letter last July.

“Such agreements make it harder for other victims to come forward and help hide perpetrators behind a cloak of anonymity.

“The use of non-disclosure agreements to buy victims’ silence is a far cry from their proper purpose​, ​for example to protect trade secrets. I am determined to see this shabby practice stamped out on our campuses, which is why last year I wrote to vice-chancellors making my position clear.

“Several university leaders have signed a new moral contract to end the use of non-disclosure agreements against students and staff, and I call on other vice chancellors to do the right thing and follow their lead.”

This will dramatically change the accountability and transparency of universities and improve the lives of students, staff and faculty – Zelda Perkins and Julie Macfarlane, #Can’tBuyMySilence

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Donelan said she had had a “warm response” from vice-chancellors with whom she was working “hand-in-hand”.

She confirmed that the new pledge did not mean a blanket ban on NDAs – as these were still appropriate in certain situations, for example protecting intellectual property.

Anti-NDAs campaign group #Can’tBuyMySilence – founded by former Harvey Weinstein aide Zelda Perkins and Canadian law professor Julie Macfarlane – welcomed the pledge, saying: “We have seen up-close the damage caused by NDAs used by some institutions of further and higher education; damage to individual complainants who feel betrayed by their university, and damage to trust among institutions when a wrongdoer is ‘passed on’ protected by an NDA.

“We are delighted that Minister Donelan is asking universities to condemn this practice and pledge not to use NDAs in the future. This will dramatically change the accountability and transparency of universities and improve the lives of students, staff and faculty by helping to break the cycle [of] abusive behaviour perpetuated by these agreements.”

A full list of universities that have signed up to the pledge will be publicly available on the #Can’tBuyMySilence website.

Hopefully universities taking the lead against the inappropriate use of non-disclosure agreements will encourage other sectors to follow suit – Tim Bradshaw, Russell Group

Universities UK told University Business it was “involved and aligned” with the Department for Education, and the group’s chief executive Alistair Jarvis today endorsed the new initiative, saying:

“Universities have a duty of care towards their students and staff and take very seriously their responsibility to ensuring that life on campus is a fulfilling, safe and enjoyable experience for all.

“The overwhelming majority do have this positive experience, but in the small number of cases where episodes of harassment or violence sadly do occur, it is critical that victims feel supported and confident to speak out.

“Universities should not use NDAs or confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements in harassment cases, or allow any agreements which prevent open conversations about harassment. Such clauses can be barriers to the reporting of concerns and are both unethical and unacceptable.”

In response to the DfE’s announcement, Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said:

“No student or member of staff should feel unsafe on campus or have to tolerate harassment or sexual misconduct in any circumstance.

“Many of our universities have already taken action on the use of non-disclosure agreements and regularly review their processes so victims are supported and feel confident to raise a complaint.

“Unfortunately, cases of sexual harassment occur in all walks of life, but hopefully universities taking the lead against the inappropriate use of non-disclosure agreements will encourage other sectors to follow suit and ensure these are never used to prevent victims from speaking out.”

NDAs on campus: the context

A BBC News investigation in 2020 found nearly one third of universities had used NDAs to resolve student complaints, involving over 300 individual NDAs, costing £1.3million in aggregate – though the true figure is expected to be higher as the BBC investigation focused only on universities and not on all registered HE providers.

In July 2021, after testimonies of misconduct, abuse and harassment were published on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website, Donelan wrote to vice chancellors urging them to tackle sexual harassment and abuse on campus, making clear all institutions must have robust procedures in place to deal with complaints and setting out her opposition to the use of NDAs.

NDAs on campus were also criticised by the University & College Union (UCU) in December 2021 – with the union adding that it, too, would stop using them in the handling of its own sexual misconduct cases.


You might also like: Universities have ‘culture of protecting predators’ – UCU

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