Stop gagging harassment victims, minister to tell UK universities

Chris Skidmore attacks widespread use of non-disclosure agreements after THE reveals extent of issue

May 5, 2019
Chris Skidmore

UK higher education institutions must not use non-disclosure agreements to “gag” staff who are victims of bullying, discrimination or sexual assault, the universities minister will say.

Chris Skidmore delivered the warning after Times Higher Education revealed that universities had issued nearly 11,000 such agreements in the space of five years, and the BBC reported that campuses had spent about £87 million on so-called gagging orders since 2017.

In a speech planned for 7 May, Mr Skidmore is expected to say that, while it might be appropriate to use non-disclosure clauses to, for example, protect valuable research findings should an academic change jobs, “in no circumstances should they be used by universities to ‘gag’ staff after experiencing poor behaviour in the workplace, including bullying, discrimination or sexual misconduct”.

The widespread use of such agreements “raises the question of what exactly is happening behind closed doors in some of our universities”, according to the minister.

“Any use of this sort of agreement to silence people or hide details of unfair practices is an outrage and risks bringing the reputation of our world-leading higher education system into disrepute,” Mr Skidmore is expected to say. “Universities need to wake up to this fact and the very real threat it poses to the reputation of the sector.”

Mr Skidmore is expected to say that forthcoming legislative proposals would make clear that non-disclosure agreements could not be used to prevent victims of harassment from going to the police.

“We need to take collective action now to stop the misuse of NDAs if we are to prevent any more talented people from being pushed out of academia and the wider research pipeline,” he was due to add.

Responses to THE’s freedom of information requests by 98 higher education institutions showed that they had issued 2,600 non-disclosure agreements in 2017-18 alone, up from 2,020 in 2014-15. These institutions had issued 1,355 non-disclosure agreements so far in this academic year.

Speaking previously, 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”.

According to the data collected by THE, London Metropolitan University had relied most heavily on non-disclosure agreements, signing 473 in the past five years. The University of Central Lancashire issued 431, while London South Bank University agreed 413.

Among the prestigious Russell Group, the most prolific users of non-disclosure agreements included the University of Sheffield (335), University of Oxford (256) and Cardiff University (220).

A Universities UK spokeswoman said that it would be issuing guidance on the use of confidentiality clauses in relation to sexual misconduct cases in the autumn.

“Universities use non-disclosure agreements for many purposes, including the protection of commercially sensitive information related to university research,” she said. “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.”

Settlement agreements did not stop staff or students reporting criminal acts to the police or regulatory bodies, the spokeswoman added.

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