Revealed: Oxford’s use of controversial ‘gagging clauses’

FOI requests reveal use of confidentiality clauses with staff members, claimed to “stifle free-speech”

Brookes staff picketting in 2006. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Oxford University has repeatedly used so-called “gagging clauses” in redundancy settlements with former employees, figures obtained by Cherwell reveal.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request found that the University has signed 18 “confidentiality clauses” with former staff members in the last five years.

It showed that the University has paid out £735,988 in severance payments to departing employees during the period.

Confidentiality clauses typically form part of “compromise” or “settlement” agreements, which tend to struck between an employee and employer when a former staff member accepts a severance payment for waiving the right to sue an organisation.

The figures show that out of 106 voluntary redundancy settlements made by the University of Oxford in the past five years, 26 have included compromise agreements, of which just under 70 per cent included a promise of confidentiality on behalf of the former employee.

The use of such compromise agreements in higher education has come under fire in recent weeks.

Speaking to Cherwell, Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, described their use across the sector as “simply outrageous”, with the risk of stifling debate.

“Universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech and forthright opinions, yet our research has shown that confidentiality clauses may have been used not only to avoid dirty laundry being aired in public but now are just common practice in higher education.

“These gagging orders have a deterrent effect, employers seem to think that employees will just sign away the right to whistleblow,” he said.

Oxford University insisted that “whistleblowing is not covered by the clauses, should that need arise”.

The figures reveal that Oxford’s use of such clauses is lower than that of other UK universities.

Previous FOI requests showed 48 universities have paid out £146 million in severance cash to staff over the past five years and 3,722 people were asked to sign compromise agreements.

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They revealed Cambridge had used 237 settlement agreements in recent years. London Metropolitan University was shown to have signed the highest number, with 894 signed since 2011/12.

A spokesperson for London Metropolitan said it was “common practice in higher education, and other sectors, to include compromise agreements in any voluntary redundancy settlements made”.

President of the Oxford branch of the University and College Union (UCU), Garrick Taylor, told Cherwell that the Union was not opposed to the “justified” use of confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements with its members in certain circumstances.

He described them as “an appropriate way to register acceptance on both sides that disagreements have formally been laid to rest.”

However, Taylor raised concern at the potential misuse of settlement agreements, saying: “We oppose the ‘hushing up’ of malpractice in any circumstances, and the use of ‘gagging clauses’ to achieve that.”

Taylor added: “We would not condone the use of settlement agreements to sidestep compulsory redundancy procedures, although in some situations we recognise that voluntary severance arrangements may be acceptable.”

Speaking on confidentiality clauses in redundancy settlements, an Oxford University spokesperson said: “Confidentiality clauses are often used by employers in settlement agreements documenting voluntary severance agreements.

“Although we cannot comment on individual cases, the University might use a confidentiality clause placing an obligation on both the employee and the University which generally covers the terms of the agreement itself.”

Universities’ contracts are coming under increasing scrutiny, amid claims that they are becoming more casualised and wages are stagnating.

Last May, Oxford academics and other staff members went on strike after a dispute over low pay.

Jacob Williams, Editor of the libertarian magazine No Offence, described the interest in confidentiality clauses as “an attempt by the Liberal Democrats to seem relevant.”

He told Cherwell: “Compromise agreements mainly concern the internal administration of universities, not substantive opinions held by academics, and frankly aren’t interesting.

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“More important is the culture of intolerance towards any views that contradict secular liberalism and its faddish offshoots.”

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