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Oriel accused of “gagging” welfare claims

A former welfare officer at Oriel College told Cherwell she was paid £5000 and signed an NDA to “sever ties” with the college after raising concerns about the mishandling of welfare complaints.

Since 2016, 45 universities have spent over £1.3 million on silencing students’ complaints of “sexual assault, bullying, and poor teaching”, according to new information obtained by the BBC.

Tiziana Scaramuzza, a former DPhil candidate at Oriel College, was paid to support student welfare while completing her law degree.

She spoke with senior staff about her concerns over failure to follow suicide prevention measures, breaches of confidentiality, and mishandling of sexual assault reports.

She told the BBC: “I was bullied into keeping quiet and all my concerns were dismissed or shouted down. They treated me like dirt.

“It was completely inappropriate. They treated me like an inconvenience, like I was the problem, instead of dealing with the problem.”

After submitting suggestions on improvements to safeguarding measures, Scaramuzza was offered “a £5,000 settlement with an NDA to sever ties.”

“Once I moved to a different college to finish my PhD, I learnt they hadn’t made any changes, which was concerning because a lot of students were vulnerable.”

Oriel College told Cherwell: “Ms Scaramuzza was employed as a Junior Dean at Oriel College from 1st Sept 2012 28th February 2013.

“The College cannot otherwise comment on matters concerning individual past members of staff.

“We can confirm that we conducted a thorough investigation into our welfare provision in 2013 and continue to strive to provide a high level of support to our students and staff. The College takes the welfare of students and staff very seriously. We currently have several members of staff, external doctors and counsellors providing welfare support.”

An ex-peer supporter at Oriel College told Cherwell: “Oriel’s welfare provisions are very contradictory. There is a dedicated team of both staff and students who take welfare very seriously – particularly peer supporters and the college chaplain who acts as a member of welfare staff.

“Yet, when it comes to sexual assault cases, members of the senior staff appear to want to stifle allegations in order to preserve the college’s reputation, even at the cost of endangering students by allowing those they acknowledge have engaged in unacceptable behaviour to remain on campus and only receive minor punishments, rather than face the repercussions of a scandal. Oriel needs to do better.”

This comes amid new reports that nearly a third of universities have used NDAs to suppress student complaints since 2016. These are legally binding contracts that restrict the sharing of information.

The BBC’s new figure of £1.3 million was acquired the data under Freedom of Information laws, and calls the numbers “an underestimate.”

The BBC says: “All but two of the 136 universities contacted responded, with varying degrees of transparency owing to data protection concerns or claims of confidentiality.

“Of these, 45 universities said they had used NDAs but not all of them disclosed full details, meaning it is hard to determine the true scale and this is an underestimate.”

Cases revealed include a student at the University of West London being threatened with expulsion if she “made a fuss.” She took legal action, which resulted in a settlement in which she received £1000 as compensation and signed an NDA.

In 2019, the BBC uncovered that UK universities spent £87m on “gagging orders” for staff since 2017, to stop “bullying, discrimination and sexual misconduct allegations becoming public.”

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore responded to the findings saying: “This is nothing short of an abuse of power. I have spoken against the use of NDAs on staff, but it is staggering that some universities have used them against students.”

Scaramuzza has since started ‘Do Better Academia’, a website for victims who feel universities have not adequately handled complaints. It is a platform to share stories and get in contact with journalists in order to hold academic institutions accountable.

She says: “There is a culture of impunity and [universities] know that they can get away with mishandling complaints or actively perpetrating wrongdoing and then cover it up.”

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