Oxford University is yet to add its pledge to the Can’t Buy My Silence campaign.
The campaign aims to end the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) by organisations to settle cases of sexual misconduct, racism, pregnancy discrimination, and other human rights violations. According to the campaign’s website, “these agreements, which threaten people with legal consequences, are being used to cover up abuse, and in some cases, criminal acts”.
Can’t Buy My Silence and Michele Donelan, the Minister for Further and Higher Education in England, co-created a pledge for UK universities to stop using NDAs for complaints of misconduct. So far, pledges have been made by fourteen universities, including the University of Exeter, UCL, and the University of York.
As of now, Oxford University has not added its name to the pledge list.
The Can’t Buy My Silence campaign was co-founded by Zelda Perkins, the first woman to break an NDA, which she had signed with Harvey Weinstein, and Professor Julie Macfarlane, a Canadian law professor who persuaded the Anglican Church to cease the use of NDAs for victims of clerical abuse.
In some cases, NDAs can have negative impacts on victims of misconduct. They can enable abusers to move workplace without revealing their past wrongdoings, prevent victims from speaking out about their experiences, and, in some cases, cause victims to live in fear of breaking the terms of the settlement.
In 2019, it was revealed that between 2017-19 nearly £90mn had been spent by UK universities in payoffs to staff that came alongside NDAs, raising concerns that victims of misconduct within higher education were being “gagged”.
Although Universities UK stated that some NDAs are used by universities to protect information about research projects, their use to settle allegations of harassment and other welfare-related complaints may also have contributed to the £90mn sum.
On January 18, 2022, Michele Donelan, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, announced that the use of NDAs for misconduct cases in universities must end. She said: “I am determined to see this shabby practice stamped out on our campuses.”
Subsequently, Minister Donelan and Can’t Buy My Silence created the voluntary pledge which universities can join. Currently, only fourteen of over 150 UK universities have signed onto the pledge.
A spokesperson for Oxford University said: ‘Oxford University cares very deeply about the health and wellbeing of our students. We condemn all forms of sexual abuse and violence, and supporting victims is a high priority for both the University and Colleges.
‘We urge anyone affected by sexual abuse, assault, or violence to contact their college or the central University where they will be offered help and support, including advice on their options if they wish to make a complaint.
‘Oxford University does not use non-disclosure agreements to prevent students from reporting sexual misconduct or other illegal or inappropriate behaviour. In exceptional circumstances, confidentiality agreements may be used once cases have been resolved.’
Image: Kat Smith