There is a human cost to bullying. The people running UK Universities don’t seem to care much about that. They are primarily interested in running the University like a business. So here, we will just look at the financial cost, the bottom line.

This calculation should be done properly through a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request. As a public body, each University should be compelled to disclose the information. It would be interesting to know how bullying & harassment claims break down into Employment Tribunal, County Court, High Court etc, how much money they spend in legal fees, and which lawyers or law firms they use.

Our previous postings have shown how Universities routinely thwart such valid FOI requests. We have little chance of getting this public information. So let us make an order of magnitude calculation to estimate the scale of expenditure.

In the most serious cases, a bullied victim gets a payout, primarily to settle the case and often with a Non-Disclosure Agreement to shut them up. Alternatively, the University can defend itself in an Employment Tribunal or Court, which is also expensive. The recent judgement of Dr Sharma versus Portsmouth University shows the perils of this. Portsmouth University received a stinging verdict and now have to pay £450,000 in damages. Of course, this is not the total cost. The University had to pay its own HR & legal department, external solicitors & a barrister to represent it at a 5 day hearing. Finally, the perpetrator left with an undisclosed settlement agreement & pay-off. A conservative estimate is that the total cost to the University of Portsmouth caused by mismanagement of this matter is at least a factor of two greater than the payout. So, the cost of this one case exceeds £1 million. There was also huge reputational damage to the University of Portsmouth.

We are interested in figuring out the rough cost of bullying and harassment to UK universities? Let’s take the case of Cambridge University. Local lawyers have typically 5 to 10 pending cases against the University at any time. There are 4 or 5 such lawyers operating in this market. This suggest at most 50 cases a year. Let us say each payout is on average £100, 000. Of course, a few will be much more, but most may be under six figures. The costs of external lawyers and barristers & the university’s own HR & legal staff working on the case doubles this. So we arrive at an annual cost of bullying/harassment of about £10 million.

Now this figure may be wrong. It is of course open to Cambridge University to provide accurate figures and supporting evidence.

Let’s have another go. We know that £90 million is the payout in gagging orders for 96 universities in the two years preceding 2019 from this article in The Guardian. Not all of the UK’s 146 Universities responded, so we adjust by a factor of 146/96. Gagging orders are just one facet of the total cost — they are only the cases that were settled before a hearing at Employment Tribunal. We adjust by a factor 2 to account for this. We then double it again, using the same rationale as above for lawyers/barrister fees (whether in-house or external) and finally adjust for inflation to 2024. We get a figure of £683 million over 2 years. So the annual bill for all UK universities is £340 million or about £2.3 million per university. This is an average — we expect larger universities to be more than this.

Both calculations are very rough. But they are in broad agreement as to the order of magnitude. They suggest each UK University is paying millions each year to sort out mismanagement of bullying & harassment cases.

Categories: Blog

1 Comment

Anonymous · 14 March 2024 at 01:54

An interesting and frankly depressing read. To put the colossal sums of money wasted by universities to protect perpetrators of bullying and mobbing within the academy, and to silence targets with gagging orders, in perspective, using some examples from conservation:

• £10 million: British government’s initial contribution to the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) Fund last year.

• £90 million: British government’s allocation to aid conservation efforts in the world’s second-largest rainforest, the Congo Basin, in 2023.

• £600 million: Estimated lower cost to create more resilient networks of protected areas in the UK.

• £2.3 million: Approximate cost to save two species from extinction, based on a 2015 study’s rough conversions from dollars to pounds.

What could be done with all of the money wasted by universities (again coming from the taxpayer and from the tuition fees of the same students that they frequently abuse) was instead used for improving higher education or furthering environmental or humanitarian goals in the world?

The sad irony is that some of the perpetrators of this abuse who are being protected by the system and by taxpayers’ money are actually academics working within the field of conservation biology and ecology. I won’t mention the individuals or institutions by name; they know who they are

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