Universities pledge to end use of nondisclosure agreements

Victims of sexual harassment at universities should no longer be silenced by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), in a new commitment backed by government, universities and activists.

Today, six university vice-chancellors invited to attend the launch signed a pledge promising not to use NDAs to address complaints of sexual misconduct, bullying and other forms of harassment – ​​so Higher Education Minister Michelle Donelan is calling on all universities to sign up.

The pledge, backed by MPs and campaign groups, commits universities not to use legally binding NDAs against students and staff who come forward to report abuse, amid fears victims will be coerced into signing agreements that prevent them from expressing themselves and protect the reputation of authors.

In 2020, a BBC News survey found almost a third of universities had used NDAs to resolve student complaints, involving over 300 individual NDAs – although the actual figure is expected to be higher.

Higher and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan said:

Sexual harassment is horrible and complainants should never be bribed or silenced just to protect their university’s reputation. 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 the silence of victims is far from their real purpose, for example to protect trade secrets. I am determined to see this crummy practice eradicated from our campuses, which is why last year I wrote to the Vice-Chancellors to clarify my position.

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 example.

The pledge was hailed by #Can’tBuyMySilence, a global campaign set up by former Harvey Weinstein assistant Zelda Perkins and Canadian law professor Julie Macfarlane, which aims to end the harmful use of NDAs, and who attended the virtual launch of the pledge on Tuesday. alongside ministers and university leaders.

Zelda Perkins and Julie Macfarlane, co-founders of Can’t Buy My Silence, said:

We have seen up close the damage caused by the NDAs used by some higher and further education institutions; harm to individual complainants who feel betrayed by their university, and damage to trust between institutions when a wrongdoer is “passed on” protected by an NDA.

We are delighted that Minister Donelan is calling on universities to condemn this practice and commit to not using NDAs in the future. This will radically change the accountability and transparency of universities and improve the lives of students, staff and faculty by helping to break the cycle of abusive behavior perpetuated by these agreements.

In July 2021, Minister Donelan wrote to Vice Chancellors urging them to address sexual harassment and abuse on campus, stating that all institutions must have robust procedures in place to deal with complaints and outlining her position on the use of NDAs.

The government has already announced plans to introduce new legislation to crack down on the use of NDAs in employment, following consultation with the Department for Business, Energy, Industry and Skills. Efforts to tackle the practice were championed by former Equalities Minister Maria Miller, MP, who welcomed the new pledge when it was launched.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President of the National Union of Students for Higher Education, said:

After years of campaigning to end sexual violence on campus, NUS welcomes this timely announcement from the Minister for Universities. Non-disclosure agreements have long been used to intimidate survivors, protect perpetrators, and allow cycles of abuse to continue.

We urge all institutions to sign this pledge, to bring much-needed transparency in how they handle complaints of sexual violence, and to commit to creating truly safe and supportive campuses for students and staff.

Minister Donelan will urge all Vice-Chancellors to sign the Pledge, Universities who register to be listed on the #Can’tBuyMySilence website.

A number of universities had already announced their intention to end the use of NDAs in sexual harassment cases, with UCL confirming in 2019 that it would end the practice in any settlement agreements with people who complained of sexual misconduct, harassment or intimidation.

UCL President and Provost Dr Michael Spence said:

We are all too aware that sexual harassment, bullying and misconduct take place in universities. When this happens, it is crucial that victims feel supported and able to talk about their experiences.

Confidentiality clauses are a barrier to this and that is why we made the decision in 2019 to no longer use NDAs in settlement agreements with people who have complained of sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying. .

Alistair Jarvis CBE, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:

Universities have a duty of care to their students and staff and take very seriously their responsibility to ensure that campus life is a fulfilling, safe and enjoyable experience for everyone.

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

Universities should not use NDAs or confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements in harassment cases, or allow any agreement that prevents open conversations about harassment. Such clauses can act as barriers to reporting concerns and are both unethical and unacceptable.