Policy passed at NUS Wales Conference 2022
Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) Student Grievance
The workshop updated and amended the policy to broaden the scope to include Further Education Colleges and Apprenticeships.
It was noted by the workshop that in many instances institutions may not formally use NDAs, however severe pressure is put on victims to be silent. It was noted that these tactics whilst not official this creates a culture where students don’t feel they can speak out. It was proposed that this issue needs to be considered in much more detail as part of this strand of work and that if the proposal passes NUS Wales should continue working on this.
What is the issue facing students?
Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) are contracts, which disallow some information being made public, or being spoken about and discussed, and are sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘gagging orders’.
NDAs can be used to protect research findings of academic staff, should they change careers or institutions. It allows them to keep their findings suppressed until publication.
However, NDAs are also immorally used in cases relating to sexual assault, harassment or staff-student misconduct, and are used a way of silencing students when complaints are brought forward.
In 2019, BBC found that UK universities have spent around £87 million in pay-offs with NDAs since 2017. Nearly a third of universities have used NDAs in student grievance disputes since 2016.
NDAs do not get to the root of the complaints, and are used a way of brushing the underlying issues under the carpet. Oftentimes, there are no repercussions for those who have necessitated the NDA - staff involved in cases are allowed to move on to other institutions and not be pulled up on previous conduct, which is putting other students within the sector at risk of the same treatment.
Anecdotally, sexual violence and relationship abuse has become more prevalent in student accommodation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to government guidance, some students have been confined to their halls of residence, which may leave them more vulnerable and susceptible to perpetrators (both students and staff).
Why is this issue important to us as a movement?
NDAs essentially buy the silence of students surrounding their experiences, and perpetuates the ‘it doesn’t happen here’ culture that institutions are keen to promote, instead of protecting students and addressing why NDAs in such cases are warranted, such as toxic cultures on campus.
The student movement is a collective and a community, and we must work together as four nations to ensure that fellow students are protected, supported and secure throughout their time on our campuses and within our institutions.
We believe NDAs are often unenforceable by institutions, so their purpose is to intimidate survivors into silence and to conceal and protect perpetrators of abuse and assault. We must not be intimidated into silence about our experiences by institutions who have a duty of care to keep their students and learners safe.
Student tuition fees are aiding in silencing students, and students should never be a party in knowingly funding the silencing of victims within their own student community.
NUS Wales and NUS UK have campaigned on this issue for over a decade, with the publication of the 2011 report ‘Hidden Marks’.
What would the world look like if we solved it?
Victims of sexual assault, harassment and other discrimination should be able to fully disclose their experiences without fear of repercussions or punishment for the actions of others. Those students that have been forced to sign an NDA should be free to talk about their experiences, and get the justice, respect and closure that they deserve. This would apply across post-16 education, in colleges, universities and apprenticeships.
The Welsh Government should follow in the footsteps of UK Government and ban the use of NDAs in cases of sexual assault and non-academic cases.
All post-16 education institutions in Wales should be aware of, appreciate and actively participate in removing the barriers to accessing support that results from the implementation of NDAs. They should also commit to banning their use in sexual assault and non-academic cases by supporting the pledge campaign run by Can’t Buy My Silence3 and backed by NUS UK.
There should be coordinated approaches and policies between accommodation providers, universities and local authorities, in dealing with issues of sexual violence and relationship abuse. Students should be clear on the process and how to report the issues in a comfortable and confidential manner, that does not make the student reporting feel at fault.