NDAs: Universities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:14 am on 29th June 2022.

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Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education) 11:14 am, 29th June 2022

I would be shocked if the Office for Students said verbatim that it would take years, because it certainly will not. Of course, it is right and proper that a regulator would consult on such a change, but it certainly will not take years. It is a priority for me, the Secretary of State for Education and the Government at large. The registration condition would mean that higher education providers could be sanctioned for failing to take seriously their duties—including on NDAs—with a fine, suspension or even deregistration as a university. It will really have the teeth to effect change.

Back in September 2021, I welcomed Universities UK publishing its sexual misconduct guidance, which explicitly advises vice-chancellors not to use NDAs in sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct cases and highlights the fact that there is support from the sector on this very issue. Additionally, the Government provided £4.7 million of funding to the Office for Students for safeguarding projects between 2017 and 2020, and providers have been leading and sharing best practice from those projects.

I also wish to highlight the publication last July of the Government’s strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, in the wake of the absolutely tragic murder of Sarah Everard. The strategy includes reviewing options to limit the use of NDAs in cases of sexual harassment in higher education.

I should add that the ask for higher education providers to commit to the pledge in order to spearhead a cultural shift against the misuse of NDAs in their own universities is only a first step towards ridding the sector of the use of NDAs in sexual harassment cases. I reiterate that although I consider commitment to the pledge to be important, it is of course not good enough on its own. That is why I have continued to go further and why I will not stop pressing this case to ensure that more is done.

I again thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and those who attended the debate. Today’s discussion shows that there is a collective resolve, and not just here in Parliament; many members of the university sector have spoken up against NDAs, along with victims among students and staff. It is absolutely clear that we must address this issue, which is why this is the first Government to put this issue on the agenda and to begin to tackle it.

I conclude by urging every university to sign up to the pledge. Universities are in many ways the engines of social change, often showing the leadership required to effect major change in our society. I believe that if our higher education sector tackles the issue head on, more institutions and more sectors in public and private life will follow its example.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.