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Changing the culture: tackling staff-to-student sexual misconduct

Professor Cara Aitchison, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University

Staff-to-student sexual misconduct to be tackled by new university guidance @UniversitiesUk

Universities must give students more help to report sexual misconduct by staff – when they experience or witness it – strongly discourage personal relationships between staff and students and never use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in cases of sexual misconduct.

They must create an inclusive and positive culture, supported by clear policies, practices and data, to tackle staff to student sexual misconduct. 

These are some of the recommendations set out in a wide-ranging new report “Changing the culture: tackling staff-to-student sexual misconduct” from Universities UK (UUK) which outlines steps to protect students from harassment and harm, while treating both staff and students fairly. 

Written with input from the National Union of Students (NUS), survivor groups including Rape Crisis and The 1752 Group, staff unions, professional bodies and academic experts, the guidance examines the impact of unequal power in relationships between staff and their students.

It makes a series of recommendations to help universities prevent sexual misconduct and address it when it does occur, suggesting ways to remove the barriers that discourage students from speaking out and improve the recording of reports and complaints.  

Universities are committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment for both students and staff, and to help achieve this, the report recommends that institutions: 

  • put clear policies in place to tackle staff-to-student sexual misconduct and ensure policies are understood and used across the whole university
  • strongly discourage close personal relationships between staff and students. Where relationships do happen, the staff member should declare this and be removed from all responsibilities which could mean a conflict of interest  
  • ban the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements in sexual misconduct and harassment cases  
  • encourage people to report concerns, with better support and protection for those who speak out, including those who prefer to do so anonymously 
  • collect and keep records on reports of staff-to-student sexual misconduct to help the sector see and understand the problem
  • establish joined-up thinking across human resources and student services and ensure that staff and student policies and practices work together
Professor Cara Aitchison, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University

The guidance was developed by an advisory group chaired by Professor Cara Aitchison, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University. Launching the guidance, Professor Aitchison said:

“Universities are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all students and staff – we have both an ethical and legal duty of care. While the overwhelming majority of students enjoy a positive and safe experience on campus, sadly harassment and violence does still occur. Both as a sector, and as independent institutions, we must address this by changing the culture that enables sexual misconduct to take place.

“It is critical that students who experience or witness sexual misconduct feel confident and supported to speak out and we know this can be particularly difficult where a complaint involves a staff member. We must ensure every campus has a culture of trust and a sense of belonging where students feel listened to and trust the university will act appropriately.”

Higher and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan

Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan said: 

“Universities have a profound responsibility to protect students from sexual misconduct, especially when perpetrated by those in positions of power such as a member of staff, so I welcome this timely guidance.  

“It is right to call on universities not to use Non-Disclosure Agreements to silence victims of sexual harassment, and I am deeply proud that over thirty universities have already signed up to a pledge I launched last month committing to end this immoral practice”. 

Professor Sasha Roseneil, UCL Pro-Provost (Equity & Inclusion) at UCL, said:

“UCL recognises the power imbalances that exist between staff and students in universities, and our Personal Relationships Policy seeks to ensure that abuses of power are prevented.

“The policy also addresses real or perceived conflict of interest that may exist in relation to close personal or intimate relationships between staff and students which may have adverse effects on the working and learning environment, and can negatively impact an individual, team or departmental culture. This allows us to work towards providing a positive and supportive environment where all are treated fairly.

“The safety and welfare of all our students and staff are our highest priority and we believe this policy is helping to protect and guide all members of our community.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS)

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, VP Higher Education at the National Union of Students, said:

“Every student should feel safe and secure throughout their time at university, and be able to look to the institution and its staff for support if they experience sexual violence on campus. That is why any abuse perpetrated by staff is particularly shocking. It destroys trust and is an issue our own research has shown was historically overlooked within higher education, focusing instead on misconduct between students.

“There are clear power imbalances in relationships between staff and students, and abuses of this power must be tackled with a whole-university approach. We were pleased to support the development of this guidance, and to help create the right culture and conditions for students to feel protected and able to speak out if they experience or witness sexual misconduct, regardless of who is behind that misconduct.”

UUK’s guide for universities to tackle staff-to-student sexual misconduct aims to address previous research findings from the NUS and 1752 group that suggest: 

  • not all staff and students know what is and is not acceptable behaviour between staff and students 
  • unequal power relationships between staff and students, and a lack of understanding of consent (including sexual consent) in relationships of unequal power, causes challenges           
  • gender, subject and level of study are risk factors, with women and postgraduate students more likely to experience sexual misconduct than men and undergraduate students
  • there are low levels of reporting by all student groups and there are challenges in the gathering, storage and use of data in this area. Removing barriers to reporting is one of the most important challenges to overcome  

Further information on sharing information on the outcomes of complaints, investigations and disciplinary procedures will be dealt with shortly in upcoming guidance produced by Universities UK in partnership with Coventry University.

The guidance was developed by an advisory group chaired by Professor Cara Aitchison, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University. The group included representatives from the National Union of Students (NUS), GuildHE, professional and research bodies in the higher education sector (including AMOSSHE, ARC, UCEA, UHR, UKRI ), UCU, The 1752 Group, Rape Crisis England and Wales academics and expert policy advisors and practitioners from across the sector in the field of gender-based violence.  

UUK’s guidance on Changing the Culture created a framework for addressing harassment occurring between students. This work builds on that framework, but takes account of additional considerations when an incident involves staff and this includes the inevitable power imbalances that occur between a staff member and student.

In 2018, UCL undertook a review of its policies and procedures relating to bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, implementing a Prevention of Bullying, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy and revising its Personal Relationships Policy in February 2020. The policies were introduced as part of the ‘Full Stop’ campaign, focusing on how all members of the UCL community can play an active role in shaping a welcoming and inclusive environment for students and staff.


18th Jan 2022: Victims of sexual harassment in universities should no longer be silenced by Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), under a new pledge backed by the government, universities and campaigners.

Today six university vice-chancellors invited to attend the launch have signed up to a pledge promising not to use NDAs in dealing with complaints of sexual misconduct, bullying, and other forms of harassment – as Higher Education Minister Michelle Donelan calls on all universities to sign up.

The pledge, backed by MPs and campaign groups, commits universities to not use legally-binding NDAs against students and staff who come forward to report abuse, amidst fears victims are being pressured into signing agreements which stop them from speaking out and protect the reputations of perpetrators.

In 2020, a BBC News investigation found nearly one third of universities had used NDAs to resolve student complaints, involving over 300 individual NDAs – though the true figure is expected to be higher.

Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan said:

“Sexual harassment is horrendous and complainants should never be bought or bullied into silence simply to protect the reputation of their university. Such agreements make it harder for other victims to come forward and help hide perpetrators behind a cloak of anonymity.

“The use of Non-Disclosure Agreements to buy victims’ silence is a far cry from their proper purpose​, ​for example to protect trade secrets. I am determined to see this shabby practice stamped out on our campuses, which is why last year I wrote to vice-chancellors making my position clear.

“Several university leaders have signed a new moral contract to end the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements against students and staff, and I call on other vice chancellors to do the right thing and follow their lead.”

The pledge was welcomed by #Can’tBuyMySilence, a global campaign set up by former Harvey Weinstein aide Zelda Perkins and Canadian law professor Julie Macfarlane, which aims to end the harmful use of NDAs, and who attended the virtual launch of the pledge on Tuesday alongside Ministers and university leaders.

Zelda Perkins and Julie Macfarlane, the co-founders of Can’t Buy My Silence, said:

“We have seen up-close the damage caused by NDAs used by some institutions of further and higher education; damage to individual complainants who feel betrayed by their university, and damage to trust among institutions when a wrongdoer is “passed on” protected by an NDA.

“We are delighted that Minister Donelan is asking universities to condemn this practice and pledge not to use NDAs in the future. This will dramatically change the accountability and transparency of universities and improve the lives of students, staff and faculty by helping to break the cycle abusive behaviour perpetuated by these agreements”

In July 2021, Minister Donelan wrote to vice chancellors urging them to tackle sexual harassment and abuse on campus, making clear all institutions must have robust procedures in place to deal with complaints and setting out her stance on the use of NDAs.

The Government has already announced plans to bring in new legislation to crack down on the use of NDAs in employment, following a consultation by the Department for Business, Energy, Industry and Skills.

Efforts to tackle the practice have been championed by former Equalities Minister Maria Miller MP, who welcomed the new pledge at its launch.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS)

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, National Union of Students Vice-President for Higher Education said:

“After years of campaigning to end sexual violence on campus NUS welcomes this timely announcement by the Universities Minister. Non-Disclosure Agreements have long been used to intimidate survivors, protect perpetrators and enable cycles of abuse to continue.

“We urge all institutions to sign this pledge, bring much needed transparency to how they deal with complaints about sexual violence and commit to creating truly safe and supportive campuses for students and staff”.

Minister Donelan will be urging all vice-chancellors to sign the pledge, with universities who sign up to be listed on #Can’tBuyMySilence’s website.

A number of universities had already signalled plans to end the use of NDAs in sexual harassment cases, with UCL confirming in 2019 it would end the practice in any settlement agreements with individuals who complained of sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying.

Dr Michael Spence, President & Provost of UCL, said:

“We are all too aware that sexual harassment, bullying and misconduct takes place in universities. When this occurs, it is crucial that victims feel supported and able to speak out about their experiences.

“Confidentiality clauses are a barrier to this and that is why we took the decision in 2019 that we will no longer use NDAs in settlement agreements with individuals who have complained of sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying.”

Alistair Jarvis, New Pro Vice-Chancellor of Partnerships and Governance at University of London

Alistair Jarvis CBE, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:

Universities have a duty of care towards their students and staff and take very seriously their responsibility to ensuring that life on campus is a fulfilling, safe and enjoyable experience for all.

“The overwhelming majority do have this positive experience, but in the small number of cases where episodes of harassment or violence sadly do occur, it is critical that victims feel supported and confident to speak out.

“Universities should not use NDAs or confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements in harassment cases, or allow any agreements which prevent open conversations about harassment. Such clauses can be barriers to the reporting of concerns and are both unethical and unacceptable.”

Scott Primmer, lawyer at Reeds Solicitors ( :

“The fact that NDA’s are still being used after the #MeToo movement to prevent allegations being made public by institutions is concerning.

However, there is a good chance that these are a response to our current poor legal protections for people accused of sexual offences. Allegations and biased media coverage can be extremely damaging to a person reputation even if they are proved to be innocent.

It is time that our system incorporated a balanced approach between both creating an environment where victims feel comfortable and able to report incidents to the police and other authorities,  and protecting the accused until proven guilty.  The  “Can’t Buy My Silence” initiative looks to be a positive step in the right direction.

Universities are increasingly becoming involved in these matters and often undertaking their own amateur investigations and tribunals. These offer little protection to the complainant as well as  the accused.  In my opinion amateur investigations  should be avoided at all costs – this is why we have a fair judicial system. If a crime has been alleged, it is for the police to investigate, and for the Crown Prosecution Service to scrutinise the evidence – not for an administrative academic with a cursory understanding of the law to play judge and jury.”

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