Over £750,000 has been paid out by the University in controversial ‘gagging clauses’ since 2016, a York Vision investigation has found.
At least 25 settlement agreements with confidentiality clauses were signed by departing University staff over this period.
Over £240,000 was spent by the University in 2018 alone on these settlements.
These agreements often prevent the signed staff member from discussing parts of their time at the University, as well as the existence and terms of the agreement reached.
They are sometimes signed when a staff member accepts payment in exchange for waiving the right to sue their employer.
If the terms of the agreement are broken then the individual may be sued for damages.
The confidentiality clause may cover trade secrets or a redundancy dismissal, but can also relate to allegations of bullying, discrimination, or sexual misconduct.
A University of York spokesperson confirmed that none of the recorded settlements in the past five years related to these types of allegations.
It is standard practice that settlement agreements include an agreement that the employee will not initiate or continue any claims against the employer in relation to allegations covered under the Equality Act (2010), such as bullying, racism, or sexual misconduct.
In 2016, research by the Liberal Democrats showed widespread use of these agreements in higher education.
In response to these findings, then-Liberal Democrat party leader Tim Farron said: “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.
“This is simply outrageous. These gagging orders have a deterrent effect, employers seem to think that employees will just sign away the right to whistleblow.
“The cold wind of gagging staff and stifled debate, much in the public interest, is going through the halls of our bastions of enlightenment and tolerance.
“This must end, these practices must be stopped.”
YUSU President Patrick O’Donnell said: “While it would be inappropriate to speculate on individual cases, the sums described are staggering.
“I think students would strongly agree that University funds should be used to improve our world-class facilities, attract the best academics to campus, and to enhance the student experience.
“While it is unclear how many of these settlements relate to harassment, bullying and discrimination, I would welcome reassurance that these confidentiality clauses are not being used to silence victims.”
A University of York spokesperson said: “There are no recorded settlement agreements for cases at York in the last five years related to allegations of bullying, discrimination, or sexual misconduct.
“Our settlement agreements are only used in exceptional circumstances.
“Agreements like these are used across many sectors, as a way of resolving a dispute between a member of staff and the employer.
“This includes balancing potential costs associated with employment tribunals, regardless of the merits of each case.”