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20th September 2016

Legal deals ‘cover up’ scale of sexual harassment problem at universities

Confidentiality clauses have according to campaigners stifled the scale of the sexual harassment issue at UK universities, leaving many afraid to speak out

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in sexual harassment cases at UK universities are, according to campaigners, causing the scale of the problem of sexual harassment at university to be masked.

Confidentiality clauses are being used to protect reputations according to academics and lawyers speaking to The Guardian. These clauses prevent any of the parties discussing what has happened.

Greater punishments for academics that sexually harass students have been called for by campaigners. UK universities are accused of looking out for their own reputations, as higher education becomes increasingly more competitive, and forgoing their duty of care to vulnerable students.

The issue of NDAs has been highlighted in a recent case of sexual harassment at Goldsmiths, University of London, when Professor Sara Ahmed resigned from her post to protest the universities failure to deal with sexual harassment which she said had become “normalised and generalised”.

Ruth Lewis, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Northumbria and the co-ordinator of the Universities Against Gender Based Violence network, said of the agreements: “They make it very difficult to know how often complaints about harassment or violence from staff or from students are resolved by a private settlement that makes the problem invisible.”

Universities UK told The Guardian statistics did not exist on the use of the confidentiality contracts but it was likely that they were used occasionally when employees left.

Ann Olivarius, a leading lawyer in the area of sexual harassment in UK and US universities, said: “Young women are terrified about the consequences if they make a complaint, then when they do, the university’s chief concern is to protect its own reputation by keeping the whole thing quiet.

“There are very few penalties for academics who sexually harass their students; until penalties are established and made known, the problem will continue.”

The Department for Education told The Guardian that universities had clear responsibilities to students, including having policies in place for handling sexual harassment complaints.

A spokesperson said: “If a student is unhappy with how a complaint has been dealt with they can speak to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Ultimately, if a student feels they have been the victim of a sexual assault they should report it to the police.”

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