Universities across the country are signing a pledge to end the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to silence victims of sexual assault. The pledge is backed by the Government Department of Education and a number of MPs. Historically, NDAs have been used by companies to keep certain information confidential in the form of a contract. Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service which works with employees and employers to resolve workplace grievances, has issued guidance on the use of NDAs in the employment relationship. Acas’s guidance is clear that NDAs cannot be used to stop someone from reporting discrimination or sexual harassment at work or to the police. However, it has come to light that universities have been using NDAs to stop students from speaking about sexual assaults connected with their university.
However, not all universities have signed the pledge. The ‘Not On My Campus’ Instagram page evidences that only 28% of UK universities have signed. The page urges university students to write to their institution’s Chancellors, sharing the ‘build trust not silence’ message. Given that 62% of students have experienced sexual violence at university, it is clear that this is a widespread issue. Surely universities should be helping their students rather than silencing them, yet with nearly a third of universities using these NDAs, this seems unlikely.
So why are universities using NDAs? In many cases, universities have used the agreements to protect their reputation. at the expense of negative effects on the students involved. The BBC interviewed an anonymous student who was thanked by her university for not ‘ruining’ her assaulter’s life. After suing the university and receiving £1,000 in compensation, she was made to sign an NDA. She explained that the way her university treated her was far worse than the assault itself. The silencing of victims, even with compensation, can cause feelings of shame and in turn, negatively impact their mental health. Sexual assault is already a huge trauma, without the added legal obligation to ‘keep quiet’. Acas’s guidance on NDAs implores employers to think about whether it is best to address an issue head on rather than trying to cover it up, and to never use NDAs routinely. It seems that universities should take note of this guidance and only use such agreements in rare circumstances, where sexual assault is not the issue to be kept confidential.
Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Higher and Further Education, has stated that NDAs should not be used in this way and has written to Vice Chancellors of numerous universities to plead her case. Although some universities are taking action, it will not be enough until all universities have made this pledge, and victims are no longer silenced by the institutions that are supposed to protect them.
If you are a past or present university student, we strongly encourage you to contact your Vice Chancellor and implore them to take action and sign the pledge. – No student should have to suffer at the hands the university designed to support them. What makes this issue so poignant is that the debate surrounding the inappropriate use of NDAs is taking place against the backdrop of a rising student mental health crisis.