UK universities are becoming increasingly reliant on non-disclosure agreements in negotiations with staff, issuing nearly 11,000 in the past five years, according to data gathered by Times Higher Education.
Responses to freedom of information requests by 98 higher education institutions show that they issued 2,600 non-disclosure agreements in 2017-18 alone, up from 2,020 in 2014-15. These institutions have issued 1,355 non-disclosure agreements so far in this academic year.
Debate about the increasing use of non-disclosure agreements focuses on concern that they can prevent departing members of staff speaking out about allegations of bullying or harassment.
According to the data collected by THE, London Metropolitan University has relied most heavily on non-disclosure agreements, signing 473 non-disclosure agreements in the past five years. The University of Central Lancashire signed 431, while London South Bank University agreed 413.
Emma Chapman, a member of the 1752 Group, which campaigns against sexual misconduct in higher education, said that “this level of NDA use shows how universities have long prioritised reputation management above the safety and well-being of their students and staff”.
The 1752 Group is lobbying for heavy regulation or a ban on the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual misconduct.
“NDAs can have a place, for example in a mutually agreed redundancy package, but they are currently being used to exploit vulnerable parties who have been the victim of misconduct, discrimination and bullying,” said Dr Chapman, a Royal Astronomical Society research fellow at Imperial College London.
According to THE’s data, the 98 institutions issued 10,918 non-disclosure agreements between 2014-15 and 2018-19 to date. The information given by universities did not include details of why the agreements were used and some are incorporated into staff’s standard termination of employment, meaning that there is no suggestion that any of the universities named are silencing victims of harassment or bullying.
London Met said that the university “does not ask staff to sign specific NDAs and we take steps to protect their rights to speak out by incorporating specific safeguards for disclosures required by law or made in accordance with the university’s whistleblowing policy in our settlement agreements”.
“These agreements do include provisions protecting information about the university’s business, prospective business, technical processes, training and/or teaching materials, computer software, intellectual property rights and finances,” London Met added.
Eight institutions, including the University of Manchester and Brunel and Lancaster universities, said that they never used such agreements.
A further 16 universities refused to supply the requested information, meaning that the real number of non-disclosure agreements used in the past five years is likely to be even higher than 11,000.
The figures emerged as the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee launched an inquiry into the use of non-disclosure agreements, amid claims that the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed women and then silenced them using non-disclosure agreements.
MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee have previously raised concerns that some universities were using non-disclosure agreements to prevent allegations of research misconduct being raised.
Last month, the UK government proposed legislating against non-disclosure agreements being used to stymie reporting of harassment or discrimination to police across all sectors. The action was taken to prevent “the misuse of these agreements to silence victims, and there is increasing evidence that this is becoming more widespread”, said business minister Kelly Tolhurst.
“Silence serves to hide justice when it does happen, allowing perpetrators to claim false innocence and equivalently insinuate falsehood on the part of the victims, who cannot speak out to protect themselves,” said Dr Chapman.
“Silence also serves to hide mishandling of cases, removing accountability from institutions and preventing any reform: without exposing the problem we cannot learn from the mistakes of the past.”
The University and College Union expressed concerns that senior members of staff were receiving “disproportionately large payoffs” when they left their posts.
“Where universities use a non-disclosure agreement it should be beneficial to both parties and not enforced so the university abdicates responsibility to deal with any issues that have arisen. Robust action to tackle problems is always welcome, but it is much better if institutions invest in creating a healthy culture at work in the first place,” the union said.