Six universities have pledged to end the use of non-disclosure agreements when dealing with complaints of sexual misconduct, bullying and other forms of harassment.
Higher education provides are being urged to sign the pledge, which has been backed by campaign groups and MPs including further and hire education minister Michelle Donelan.
Those who sign the pledge promise to not force staff and students who report abuse to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in order to protect the reputations of their organisation and the alleged perpetrators.
In 2019 a BBC investigation found that nearly a third of universities had used NDAs to silence students who had come forward about alleged misconduct.
Donelan, who wrote to university vice chancellors last year urging them to tackle abuse on campus, 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.”
At a launch event this week, six universities, which have not been named, signed the pledge to end the use of NDAs in this context.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents higher education providers, 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’t Buy My Silence, 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.
Universities that sign up to the pledge will be listed on the Can’t Buy My Silence website.
Such clauses can be barriers to the reporting of concerns and are both unethical and unacceptable” – Alastair Jarvis, Universities UK
Perkins and Macfarlane said in a statement: “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.
“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.”
In 2019 UCL said that it would end the practice of using NDAs in cases of where sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying had been alleged.
UCL president Dr Michael Spence said it is crucial that victims feel supported and able to speak out about alleged abuse.
“Confidentiality clauses are a barrier to this,” he said.
In 2019 the government announced plans to bring in new legislation to crack down on the use of NDAs in employment.
MP Maria Miller last year presented a private member’s bill that sought to outlaw the use of NDAs in sexual harassment cases.