NDAs: UK universities misusing ‘gagging orders’ described as ‘outrage’

 
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Female lecturerImage copyright Getty Images

Universities using “gagging orders” to stop staff going public with claims of bullying or sexual misconduct is an “outrage”, according to a minister.

Chris Skidmore said using non-disclosure agreements in this way risks the reputation of UK higher education.

It comes after BBC figures showed universities spent about £87m on pay-offs with NDAs since 2017.

NDAs are contracts between employers and companies which can stop staff or ex-staff making information public.

In a speech at the London School of Economics this week, universities minister Mr Skidmore is expected to say universities are considered the “bastions of free speech” – but that there are reports that some of them have suppressed allegations of harassment, discrimination and sexual assault.

Known as “confidentiality clauses” in the legal profession, NDAs can be signed when staff are hired to protect trade secrets like inventions or ideas.

But they can also be signed when employees and organisations resolve a dispute, and have been used to stop workers discussing allegations of misbehaviour in the workplace.

Last month, dozens of academics told BBC News they were “harassed” out of their jobs and made to sign NDAs after making complaints.

Image copyright UK Parliament
Image caption Mr Skidmore will say collective action is needed to stop the misuse of NDAs

“Non-disclosure agreements exist for many purposes – such as protecting valuable research findings should a staff member change jobs,” Mr Skidmore will say on Tuesday.

“But in no circumstances should they be used by universities to ‘gag’ staff after experiencing poor behaviour in the workplace, including bullying, discrimination or sexual misconduct.

“Let me be clear that any use of this sort of agreement to silence people or hide details of unfair practices is an outrage and risks bringing the reputation of our world-leading higher education system into disrepute.

“Universities need to wake up to this fact and the very real threat it poses to the reputation of the sector.”

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Media captionAnahid Kassabian felt bullied out of her job after she was diagnosed with cancer

Mr Skidmore is expected to express his support for Universities UK – which represents universities. It has said using NDAs to stop victims speaking out will not be tolerated.

BBC analysis last month showed 96 universities in the UK had spent £87m on around 4,000 settlements since 2017.

Many universities said they were unable to disclose why the agreements were signed, so it is unclear how many relate to allegations of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct.

Claims of the misuse of NDAs by universities follow high-profile cases in the film and business worlds.

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