The University of St Andrews has declared it stands against the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in cases of sexual misconduct.
In April of last year, Lady Margaret Hall, one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford, was the first to publicly support a ban of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in university cases of sexual misconduct.
Taking such a prominent stance against this led to support from other universities and the subsequent ban of NDAs in university campuses by the UK government in February of this year. The University stated: “We do not and will not use non-disclosure or confidentiality agreements to prevent the investigation of claims of sexual misconduct or other inappropriate behaviour, or to prevent whistleblowing.”
On this issue of sexual misconduct, the University expresses that it is devoted to providing a “safe and supportive environment" where students can have confidence that “they will be listened to, believed, and supported”.
This ranges “from the most severe forms of sexual violence to unwanted touching, stalking, abusive, or degrading remarks and across a vast range of inappropriate behaviour in-between.”
Since the ban has only been in place for a month, only in time will we be able to measure its ability to allow more students to speak out. To gain some further insight, The Saint spoke with two students to learn how this might impact a student’s decision to report incidents of sexual misconduct.
One student shared that she did not recognise satisfactory support from the University. The student’s encounter occurred in a place they assumed she would be safest from harm, in the “trusting hall environment” of student accommodation. The student was advised to report the incident to the police but said that she did not feel comfortable approaching them and did not seek any further resolution.
She expressed that it was a “very intense situation” and took her a while to process what she had experienced. She shared that in the aftermath “pieces come back slowly”, alongside feelings of guilt and self-blame. She wondered how it would reflect on her and “didn’t want to feel like a victim”. In this case she was unable to identify the perpetrator but is left with physical and mental reminders of the encounter. It is in cases such as these that reporting can become increasingly difficult. Unable to recall events, she explained that accessing the appropriate resources can become complicated, despite their availability.
The student saw that the ban of NDAs was beneficial but was unlikely to make a difference in students reporting to the University. She perceived that there were “implications of speaking out”, but the University has said that it encourages this where possible.
The University emphasises that the voices of students must be heard so that institutions and individuals “can help tackle the root causes of harassment and misconduct”. This is why the University “will never use NDAs or confidentiality clauses to stop survivors speaking out”.
The University also stated, “Cases can be reported to the University’s Report & Support team but those who initially report experiences may not go on to formally report incidents of sexual misconduct.” In the academic year of 2017-18, eleven cases of sexual misconduct were reported, with four resulting in disciplinary action. This rose to fifteen reports in 2021-22, with six leading to punitive response. Drawing conclusions from these statistics can be difficult as it may indicate students have become more confidence in reporting. The University notes that it is important to consider that “not all universities record these statistics in the same way, and not all encourage survivors to come forward”.
The University said that this information makes St Andrews an easy target for mainstream media as figures seem greater than other universities. Additionally, the University claims that in a yearly survey of service users, “85% agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with service”.
Despite not reporting her experience, a second student interviewed found this statistic to be surprising. She also did not report to the University as it took her a long time to come to the realisation that she wasn’t to blame for what happened. The University highlights that they were the first in Scotland to introduce a workshop intended to raise awareness in 2017 entitled ‘Got Consent’.
When asked about the effectiveness of such programmes, the student was not confident of their ability to transform attitudes towards sexual misconduct. At a workshop during her hall days in first year she recalled that most of her peers believed that “if you were drunk, you were culpable” in such incidents. She explained that it is this kind of attitude and judgement which makes speaking out increasingly difficult.
To encourage more to speak out, the student proposed that the “burden of proof needs to be lower” as the likelihood of false accusations is low. She believes that sexism plays a huge part in the attitude towards instances of sexual misconduct, where women especially can be dismissed as emotional and exaggerative. The student acknowledged that “just relying on testimony can be finicky”, but still sees that more swift action should be taken by the University.
She thinks that one major obstacle to students speaking out is the attitude of student organisations to act in the interest of the perpetrator over the accuser, even when instances of the former being innocent are very rare.
The issue of sexual misconduct is not exclusive to St Andrews and represents a much wider issue which is highly sensitive and leaves many sufferers without closure under varying circumstances.
The University states, “Universities cannot change the world by themselves, but St Andrews and its students are leading the way in tackling issues of gender-based violence."
Illlustration: Isabelle Holloway