UK universities pledge to end use of non-disclosure agreements for sexual misconduct

In a press release on 18 January, the government announced a UK university pledge to end the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in settlements for cases of sexual harassment. 

Six universities, including Cambridge, Exeter, and Goldsmiths, have signed the pledge so far, promising to end the practice of addressing complaints of “sexual misconduct, bullying, and other forms of harassment” by means of legally-binding NDAs. 

Higher Education Minister Michelle Donelan said in the press release: “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.” 

Donelan has also called for all universities to join the pledge, which has been backed by various MPs, campaign groups such as #Can’tBuyMySilence, and the National Union of Students’ vice-president for higher education, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio.

According to a 2020 BBC investigation, nearly one-third of UK universities have used NDAs for student complaints since 2016. This investigation followed a 2019 report where UK universities were accused of using “gagging orders” against academics and staff to prevent allegations of discrimination and misconduct from being publicised. Figures obtained by the BBC showed that universities in the country spent approximately £87 million on settlements with NDAs since 2017. 

Certain universities had already demonstrated aims to cease the use of NDAs in settling complaints of sexual harassment. UCL, for instance, announced in 2019 that it no longer uses confidentiality clauses in cases of sexual misconduct, bullying, and harassment. 

Other industries have followed as well. For instance, following a consultation with the Department for Business, Energy, Industry, and Skills, the government announced plans to bring in new legislation to address the use of NDAs within the employment sector. 

An LSE spokesperson has confirmed that LSE has not signed the pledge yet. The spokesperson said, “We are studying the pledge and urgently working through the best way to ensure that LSE policies and practises align with its aims and do not prevent open discussion or the reporting of concerns around bullying, harassment and violence.” LSE also encouraged the school community to report any incidents of bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct to its online portal, Report it Stop it, and access its Safe Contacts and counselling services. 
Anaëlle, lead campaigner for Hands Off LSE, has been working with the campaign to address sexual harassment on campus since its launch in 2019. She urged the School to sign the pledge due to the psychological impact of NDAs on victims: “NDAs can retraumatise victims of sexual violence and misconduct. It is important LSE signs this pledge so that victims’ voices are not silenced.”

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