It has been revealed by the Courier that Newcastle University has spent £1.8 million on Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) over the past 5 years, obligating staff members to uphold confidentiality on a variety of university information.
The agreements prevent staff from sharing confidential information and trade secrets. While NDAs are often widely used for legitimate commercial reasons, they have been alleged to be used to hide details of sexual harassment or bullying in recent months and are often referred to as ‘gagging orders’.
In 2018, £445,928 was spent on NDAs by Newcastle University, marking the largest pay-out since 2014. In total, UK universities spent £87 million on payoffs to staff with NDAs over the past two years. The figures uncovered by the BBC were followed by testimonies from dozens of academics that they were being made to sign NDAs after raising complaints.
It is often difficult to determine how or why a NDA was used because of the secrecy involved in the signing of NDAs.
In a recent speech, Universities minister Chris Skidmore said, “non-disclosure agreements exist for many purposes – such as protecting valuable research findings should a staff member change jobs. 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.”
A Newcastle University spokesperson commented: “A university can use non-disclosure agreements for a number of purposes including the protection of commercially sensitive information related to university research.
We have not used or would ever use confidentiality clauses to silence victims from speaking out about misconduct. All colleagues and students are entitled to a safe experience at university and we have a duty of care in this regard too.”
Speaking to the Courier the Chair of Newcastle University’s UCU branch, Bruce Baker said: “We recognise that there could be certain situations where the use of NDAs is appropriate, but problems arise when their use is shrouded in secrecy. There should be mechanisms for the review of the use of NDAs, and those mechanisms should involve the staff unions since it is the employees we represent who are most affected.”
He continued: “The danger of having a system that relies on NDAs that no one ever hears about is that it can encourage a cavalier attitude where it becomes easier to pay someone off than for the University to confront and deal with the bad behaviour by its own managers that created the problem.”
Newcastle University have made it clear that the use of NDAs “does not prevent colleagues or students from reporting criminal acts to the police”. NDAs do not stop people reporting alleged illegal acts but allegations of staff making sexual comments or bullying staff may still be protected with the use of NDAs.
Bruce Baker concluded he hoped the Newcastle University governing Council “would take up the question of whether this is the best use for limited funds and whether the way NDAs are used at Newcastle University are appropriate to a university, which must always be an institution based on collegiality and openness.”