Durham pledges against use of non-disclosure agreements to silence harassment complaints

By Lizzie McBride

Durham University has signed up to a government pledge promising not to use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence victims of sexual misconduct, bullying and harassment.

26 UK higher education institutions have signed the ‘Can’t Buy My Silence’ pledge so far which is a commitment not to use “non-disclosure agreements to silence people who come forward to complain of sexual harrasment, abuse or misconduct, or other forms of harassment and bullying.”

In 2020 the institution featured in a BBC investigation that revealed almost a third of UK universities had used NDAs to silence student’s complaints of sexual assault, bullying and poor teaching since 2016. Durham paid out £20,500 to fewer than five students in the 2018/19 academic year and £156,800 to eight students in 2017/18. From 2016 to 2020, 45 universities paid out a total of £1.3 million to students as part of NDAs. Payments ranged from £250 to £40,000.

Non-disclosure agreements, which were designed to protect business secrets, are legal contracts that stop people from sharing private information. Jeremy Cook, Durham’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), denied in 2020 that the University had used NDAs “in any student case involving sexual misconduct and violence”.

“Complainants should never be bought or bullied into silence simply to protect the reputation of their university”

Minister for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelon

Minister for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelon, said, that “Sexual harassment is horrendous and complainants should never be bought or bullied into silence simply to protect the reputation of their university.”

“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 described the pledge as a “moral contract” and called on other vice-chancellors to “do the right thing and follow their lead”.

Concerning the new pledge Durham University said: “We will not tolerate sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, or other forms of harassment and bullying within our community. Where this occurs, we will always ensure victim-survivors get the support they need to report allegations, rebuild their lives, and stay safe.”

“We would not use non-disclosure agreements to silence victim-survivors of sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, or other forms of harassment and bullying.”

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