Six universities have signed up to a pledge promising not to use legally binding Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) against students and staff in dealing with complaints of sexual misconduct, bullying, and other forms of harassment.
Campaigners have argue that victims are being pressured into signing agreements which stop them from speaking out and protect the reputations of perpetrators.
In 2020, a BBC News investigation found nearly one third of universities had used NDAs to resolve student complaints, involving more than 300 individual NDAs – though the true figure is expected to be higher.
Calling on other universities to sign up to the pledge, Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan said: “Sexual harassment is horrendous and complainants should never be bought or bullied into silence simply to protect the reputation of their university. 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.”
Alistair Jarvis CBE, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: "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."
The pledge was welcomed by #Can’tBuyMySilence, a global campaign set up by former Harvey Weinstein aide Zelda Perkins and Canadian law professor Julie Macfarlane, which aims to end the harmful use of NDAs.
Perkins and Macfarlane said: “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 abusive behaviour perpetuated by these agreements.”