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UK universities ‘gagging’ student complaints of sexual assault

It has been revealed that some UK universities are using gagging clauses to stop students from taking their complaints of sexual assault, bullying and poor teaching to the public.

According to information obtained by BBC News, over a third of universities in the UK have used non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) since 2016.

The NDAs were also used to settle complaints relating to a lack of disability support, accommodation issues and complaints pertaining to cases of false advertisement.

Some students have been told they will be expelled should they speak out about the details of the NDA or their original complaint. This follows earlier investigations last year that raised concerns over the ways in which universities were handling student complaints of sexual assault.

A student at the University of West London, whose identity has been protected, has spoken to the BBC about her experience with her university after she was sexually assaulted.

The police told the student there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute which pushed the undergraduate into “emotional chaos”,  resulting in her overdosing.

After taking a three-week break to recover, the student returned to the university where she says she was “thanked” by a staff member for not ruining the life of the alleged attacker. The university allegedly later said that she would be expelled if she made any further issue of the attack.

The student claims she then made a complaint the university, which she said led to a compensation payment of £1000 and the undergraduate having to sign an NDA, keeping the terms of the complaint confidential.

The University of West London disputes these claims, and told the BBC that they had provided all the support they could but could not comment further due to confidentiality.

Georgina Calvert-Lee, a lawyer specialising in sexual assault cases, said most uses of NDAs on students when sexual assault allegations were involved are “unethical” and would be hard to enforce.

While 45 institutions admitted to using NDAs, many universities responded to the BBC’s request for information with limited transparency, claiming that some data could not be handed out due to concerns about data protection or confidentiality. It is unknown whether the University of Manchester is among these institutions.

According to Freedom of Information Requests issued by the BBC, there have been 300 NDAs signed by students since 2016, with the resulting monetary compensation amounting to £1.4 million being paid out. Individual payments ranged from £250 to just under £40,000, but not all students received compensation.

In response to the release of this data, the government said: “Harassment of any sort is abhorrent and higher education providers have a responsibility to ensure they provide a safe and inclusive environment.”

Universities UK, which represents 136 institutions, added: “Every student should feel safe and supported through their time at university and this includes feeling empowered to speak out if they have concerns.”

The University of Manchester has been contacted for comment.

Tags: NDAs, student complaints, student complaints procedure, Universities UK

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