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How UK universities used NDAs to silence students
Photography Michelle Ding, via Unsplash

Students speak out on how their universities used NDAs to silence them

Nearly a third of institutions have spent over £1 million on agreements to resolve issues including sexual misconduct allegations and poor teaching

For decades, bad people have utilised non-disclosure agreements to silence their victims and continue their behaviour without consequences – see: Harvey Weinstein. When the lid was finally lifted on the disgraced mogul’s shocking history of sexual violence, many women bravely breached their contracts in order to finally speak out about their trauma at his hands.

Now, according to research by the BBC podcast The Next Episode, NDAs are also being used by UK universities in order to gag allegations of misconduct, poor teaching, and false advertising of courses. Based on Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to 136 universities, it was discovered that nearly a third had used the agreements to resolve student complaints over the past four years, paying out a total of £1.3 million.

“They were trying to protect themselves over my safety,” explains sexual assault survivor Olivia* in an instalment of The Next Episode titled “Gagged By My Uni”. Olivia reveals that the university refused to look into her complaint or take any action because of an ongoing police investigation. “But I’d been asking them – for several months at that point – what happens if the police drop it because I knew that, statistically, that was a very likely option.” Once her case was dropped – “they said there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute in court,” she says – Olivia asked what the university could do to make her feel safe.

“I wanted a proper investigation,” she continues, “but they basically came back to me and said, ‘we can work on a no-contract agreement’ – different buildings, lectures, social events, things like that. At first I thought it was great, but the last clause meant I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, or I’d be expelled from the university.”

Charlotte* had a similarly distressing experience after being assaulted by a guy she was dating. “Initially I went to the university (for guidance),” she explains, “because I didn’t know how to define it. I didn’t know if it was an assault, or if I was just a bit too drunk.” The university in question, The University of West London, allegedly contacted the police, who went on to question Charlotte for five hours before saying “it would be a case of ‘he said, she said’, because there was no physical evidence”.

Following the lacklustre work of the authorities, Charlotte went back to her university for advice. “They told me I had to come in for a meeting and couldn’t have anyone with me,” she says. “Someone senior thanked me for not pursuing things with the police – literally thanked me for not ‘ruining his life’. They essentially said, ‘you make any more of a fuss, or even cry, you’re out. I was not supported at all.”

Charlotte says she later found out that teachers at The University of West London had spoken to her friends encouraging them not to speak to her. “That plunged me into emotional chaos,” she reveals. “I needed my friends more than anything.” After graduating, Charlotte submitted a formal complaint to the university about “how they treated me and their behaviour towards me”. She reveals that she was paid £1,000 compensation and that the university covered her legal costs, but adds: “It was written in the contract that I had to keep it confidential, and couldn’t disclose (anything) to a third party without the written permission of the uni.”

“I don’t think they should be treating students with expulsion for talking about their experiences. They should acknowledge there’s a problem and try to take steps to tackle it” – Olivia

According to a press release, The University of West London said that it “disputed the allegations” made by Charlotte, explaining that they “provided all the support they could at the time”. The university added that it was “constrained from commenting further because of its confidentiality to students”, but claimed it has since reviewed its sexual harassment complaint policies.

Like Olivia, Charlotte was initially pleased with the result of her negotiations with the university. “When I signed (the NDA), I was just glad for it to be over,” she says, “and I didn’t think much of it.” But explains that “looking back, it essentially silences me”. She continues: “Considering (universities) are charged with pastoral care for young people, it goes against what their values should be.”

Olivia agrees: “I don’t think they should be treating students with expulsion for talking about their experiences. They should acknowledge there’s a problem and try to take steps to tackle it. Another massive concern was the vulnerable students who didn’t know what had happened – I couldn’t warn anyone that their safety was being compromised without their knowledge. There were other people at risk, and that’s terrifying.”

Speaking to BBC Sounds, Universities UK criticised these cases but seemed to defend the use of non-disclosure agreements more widely, saying: “Like most organisations, universities use NDAs for many different reasons. Universities should not be using NDAs to prevent open conversations about harassment or indeed to dissuade students raising other legitimate complaints.” A government spokesperson said they are now “legalising to crack down on misuse of NDAs” in order to protect “individuals from threats or intimidation”.

UK universities have recently come under fire for their handling of sexual assault allegations, with Warwick University students taking to the streets to protest rape culture and racism at the institution, while just last month, a report revealed that uni’s are continually “letting down” students who have been abused, offering “inadequate” support and “ineffective” reporting procedures. This information came just months after a 2019 study revealed that sexual abuse is rampant in futher education across the country, with 75 per cent of students reporting at least one unwanted sexual experience while at college or university.

Both Olivia and Charlotte say their mental health suffered as a result of both their assaults and the treatment they received by the university afterwards. “I’d developed PTSD,” says Olivia, “and was given some counselling. But other than that I was told to keep my head down and focus on my work – like a distraction – which was pretty hard because that’s not how it works. (The university) told me to just not leave my room if I felt unsafe. It really impacted me. Their view that it’s your responsibility to not put yourself in danger made me feel like it was my fault.”

“I would love to leave it in the past. But being bound by this means it’s always looming over me” – Charlotte

She adds: “It saddens me that there could be so many people who suffer through this silently. (The university) should have told me that I could seek support; that I could tell my parents and my friends. I was still finding my feet, and to be told that I had to keep it a secret was really horrible.”

When asked if she thinks it’s ever appropriate for universities to use NDAs, Charlotte answers: “No, not at all. I don’t want to talk about what happened to me – I would love to leave it in the past. But being bound by this means it’s always looming over me because I have something that could legally be used against me if I did decide to speak to someone.” She asserts that her £1,000 compensation is “pittance considering what I went through and what I’ve been dealing with in the years since it happened”, adding that “you can’t put a value on someone’s experience and how it’s affected them”.

Charlotte says she’s now broken her NDA in order to retrieve her sense of power, and “to show universities that we’re going to speak up”. She concludes: “They should have been a lot more compassionate, not ostracised me. We’re not going to stay silent forever.”

*Names have been changed