UUK: avoid non-disclosure agreements in sexual misconduct cases

Forthcoming guidance will stop short of banning staff-student relationships, conference hears

March 10, 2021
Woman silenced, to represent non-disclosure agreements
Source: iStock

New guidance is set to warn UK universities against using non-disclosure agreements in sexual misconduct cases but will stop short of an outright ban on staff-student relationships.

The guidance on staff-student sexual misconduct, to be issued this summer, comes after “the sector and its leaders have for too long been too slow in responding to abuses of power and privilege”, said Cara Aitchison, vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University, who chairs Universities UK’s advisory group on the issue.

Professor Aitchison told a UUK conference on violence and harassment in higher education that the guidance would call for an end to the use of non-disclosure agreements “in cases of sexual misconduct, to prevent passing the problem from one university to another”.

Times Higher Education revealed in 2019 that UK universities had issued nearly 11,000 non-disclosure agreements in a five-year period. Concerns have been raised that universities use the agreements to protect their reputation, but as a result perpetrators of abuse are able to seek jobs elsewhere and potentially reoffend, with no risk of their past conduct being disclosed.

Working with the 1752 Group of academics and the National Union of Students, UUK has gathered “a body of evidence” that highlighted the prevalence and severity of the problem of staff-to-student sexual misconduct, Professor Aitchison told the conference.

The new guidance will cover how universities should change their culture, policies, practice and data to end this particular kind of harassment.

Universities will be asked to develop a clear and robust university-wide policy to address staff sexual misconduct, she said.

The guidance will call for universities to prevent staff engaging in relationships with any students they have a professional relationship with and to evaluate the merits of an outright ban on sexual relationships between staff and students. “We now have a number of universities that do this; it may be the beginning of a wave,” Professor Aitchison said.

However, the guidance itself “stopped short of calling for an outright ban on consensual staff-student relationships, simply because we are devising guidance for autonomous institutions”, she explained. “But for those universities that do still permit relationships, there has to be a policy. It is a clear conflict of interest [even if the staff member is not directly responsible for the student’s education].”

Last year, THE reported that only six UK universities explicitly prohibited sexual relationships between teaching staff and students. In a survey of 102 institutions, 51 simply discouraged such relationships, and 45 gave no guidance at all.

Professor Aitchison added that the guidance was also based on “growing evidence of good practice, including the appointment of sexual violence liaison officers in a number of universities, [and] the wider engagement with the discourse of gender-based violence across the sector”.

Alongside changing the culture, the guidance will also ensure that students feel empowered to make disclosures and reports when necessary. Professor Aitchison said the report “will be our call to action”.


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