Students ‘appalled’ with LUSU’s use of non-disclosure agreements in focus group

‘This is an abuse of power by LUSU to try and silence students from speaking out’

In information given to The Tab Lancaster, we can confirm that Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU) is actively using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to prevent members of its budgetary focus group from talking about the group, and its dealings.

The NDAs initially had an expiry date of 2030, meaning that any student who signed the agreement would not be able to discuss the focus group for at least 10 years.

One student involved, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Tab Lancaster: “Students shouldn’t have to sign a decade-long NDA just in order to have a say on how their students’ union spends their money. This is an abuse of power by LUSU to try and silence students from speaking out. It makes you wonder what they’re hiding. LUSU’s leadership is actively anti-democratic and all its decisions shrouded in secrecy. This is not how a students’ union should be run.”

The anonymous student says that LUSU is abusing its power by getting students to sign an NDA

Since The Tab began investigating, the NDA expiry date has since been reduced from 2030 to 2022.

Andrew Williams, a History and Politics student, said: “I volunteered for the focus group in good faith, but I was appalled to see they were asking us to sign an NDA for 10 years, with threat of legal action if its terms were broken. I asked them to reduce the length of the NDA, which they didn’t do before I left the group. Lancaster students voted to implement Hannah Prydderch’s motion for participatory budgeting 10 months ago. If LUSU had taken this motion and the 2019 AGM seriously we would already have proper structures in place for student consultation on this budget. Instead, we’re stuck with this.”

The issue at hand dates back to LUSU’s AGM in October; creating a “budget committee” was voted on and passed, and yet this was not established. Then, in July, the Executive Committee agreed to establish a student jury that would advise the Trustee Board on setting next year’s budget; again, this was not implemented. LUSU’s budget is set to take a cut of up to 33 per cent in the coming academic year.

When contacted for comment, LUSU President Oliver Robinson said: “It was very important to me that the panellists were given full access to all the information they needed to hold informed opinions. Some of this was going to be commercially sensitive, so it made sense that our standard confidentiality agreement was to be deployed. It wasn’t until some panellists messaged me over the weekend that I realised that the SU’s ‘standard’ agreement was a 10-year NDA!

“However, this has been resolved.

“We’re now in the position where SU is able to safely share confidential information with the panellists, whilst satisfying the principle of transparency in all other regards. On top of this, the SU will be publishing its budget after it has been passed – hopefully, this will be after Friday’s meeting of the Trustee Board.”

LUSU Vice-President Union Development, Atree Ghosh, said: “On the note of an NDA being necessary for students participating in this focus group, I think it’s a requirement not entirely just for the SU, but also all commercial partners that we work with. I am not 100 per cent aware of the exact information that we will be providing participants just yet, but I’m sure this will include commercially sensitive information that we have sourced from outside of the SU.

“We must note that the information participants will be shown is not final. Without an NDA, sharing the draft documents outside of their group becomes more of a reality, and this could lead to the spreading of misinformation. We are providing these NDAs not because we have something to hide, but the documents may include sensitive information.

“Finally, on not hiding anything from students – I couldn’t agree more with that opinion. We have already had conversations of publishing the detailed final budgets on our website for all students to see. This will add clarity to the decisions being made around funding, but again, we can only do this when the numbers are final. The entire point of this budget focus group was to be able to get students views before these figures were finalised, but once that is the case, we will still give greater detail to all students.”

Lancaster University is yet to respond to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted to it by The Tab Lancaster in March, around the number of NDAs it has already required employees of LUSU to sign.

Lancaster University had no comment to make on this story.

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