Colleges and universities have spent more than €230,000 investigating, settling, and seeking legal advice after allegations of sexual harassment on campuses were made over the past five years.
A Sunday Independent investigation has uncovered spending at colleges across the country following complaints of sexual harassment, but the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre said the revelations only reveal "the tip of the iceberg" because many cases go unreported.
It said the centre is aware of higher numbers of cases through the support it provides to victims.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show colleges have employed the services of private investigators, solicitors and barristers following complaints of sexual harassment to third level bodies.
They reveal eight colleges spent €231,656.27 over the past five years after allegations of sexual harassment were made. Most of this money went to solicitors, barristers and private investigators.
Only €10,510, or 4.5pc of the total costs, was paid out in settlements or awards. This sum does not include an undisclosed amount paid by Athlone IT (AIT) following an incident where a settlement was reached on foot of legal advice received in 2018 and 2019.
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre CEO Noeline Blackwell said it is not possible to reflect the actual number of incidents of sexual harassment in the figures disclosed by colleges because victims are often reluctant to come forward.
In one of the cases a Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) staff member was harassed during a lecture and received €10,000 after taking an appeal to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) following a ruling by the Equality Tribunal in 2015.
The WRC hearing last year heard the employee was subjected to multiple incidents of sexual harassment by students during lectures over a five-month period between October 2014 and the following March.
WIT contested the claim and told the hearing it took all practicable steps to avoid the occurrence of sexual harassment but the WRC said the college "cannot be found to have taken such steps as were reasonably practicable to avoid a recurrence of sexual harassment and harassment based on gender".
It ordered a review of how WIT's Dignity and Respect policy is operated. The WRC also asked the college to examine the effectiveness of systems to communicate policies to students.
WIT spent €6,642 on legal advice during the case. A spokeswoman said it does not comment on individual cases.
In total, colleges and universities spent €105,937.63 on legal advice following allegations of sexual harassment. Another €111,490.82 was spent investigating claims.
The spending covers allegations also made at Cork IT (CIT), Dundalk IT (DKIT), Galway-Mayo IT (GMIT), Limerick IT (LIT), Mary Immaculate College Limerick (MIC), and University College Cork (UCC).
Other colleges had no records of spending on investigations, settlements or legal fees following allegations of sexual harassment. University College Dublin (UCD) and Dublin City University (DCU) have yet to respond to requests for documents.
In most cases the spending related to a single allegation. Ms Blackwell said the figures give insight into the amount of incidents that go unreported in colleges.
"Those figures are relatively small given our understanding of the much greater prevalence of sexual harassment in our colleges and they only scratch the tip of the iceberg. This is a really interesting indication of the prevalence but only a very tiny number of cases come up in the official records," she said.
"We have maintained it is not credible that there are only one or two cases per year in third-level institutions when the rate of incidents is manifestly much higher in general society."
UCC accounted for the biggest spend over the past five years, at €76,265.38. Financial records show it spent €51,294.88 investigating allegations of sexual harassment in 2018. Across 2017 and 2018 it spent €24,460.50 on legal advice. A payment of €510 was made by the University in 2018. The university did not respond to follow-up questions from the Sunday Independent.
CIT spent €55,560.79 on solicitors and barristers following three complaints of sexual harassment. The spend was spread across each academic year between September 2015 and the summer of 2019. It led to two student disciplinary cases and one staff disciplinary case, but a spokeswoman for the institute said the outcome of each matter was confidential.
The spending did not cover an additional case which arose over the past 12 months which led to another student disciplinary matter but incurred no financial cost for CIT.
MIC, a teaching college in Limerick, spent €34,140.15 investigating an allegation of sexual harassment in 2018. It also spent €2,152.50 on legal advice. A spokeswoman said any complaint of inappropriate behaviour is taken very seriously and dealt with "proactively and sensitively", with supports offered to a complainant, but declined to give further comment.
LIT had one investigation into an allegation of sexual harassment over the past five years. This occurred last year and led to a €20,838.79 spend on an "independent external investigator" and €7,588.51 on legal fees. Another €3,717.82 was spent on stenography.
AIT spent €6,737.33 on legal fees in 2018 and 2019 following a complaint. This led to the payment of a settlement but the college refused to outline how much was paid, claiming it "could potentially identify the individuals in question". A spokeswoman for the institute said it does not comment on individual cases but is committed to providing a safe campus.
GMIT spent €5,217 investigating sexual harassment but did not give further details or respond to questions from this newspaper last week.
Dundalk IT spent €2,706 on legal advice following a sexual harassment allegation "investigated under its student code of conduct/disciplinary process" during the 2019-2020 academic year.
Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said a culture of zero tolerance for sexual harassment for students and teachers must be created. A survey of higher education institutions (HEIs) on the matter is to begin next year which will also work to improve reactions to bullying and other forms of harassment.
A spokeswoman for the minister said: "A substantial barrier to tackling these issues has been the lack of data indicating the extent of the problem. The recording of incidents by HEIs has been inconsistent.
"The action plans he has requested of each HEI will involve the implementation of systems that record the number of incidents of bullying, intimidation or harassment, including sexual harassment."
CollegeInvestigation Legal Settlement/Other Total
(alphabetical order)Costs CostsAwardCosts
Athlone IT €6,737.33 Undisclosed €6,737.33
Cork IT €55,650.79 €55,650.79
Dundalk IT €2,706 €2,706
Galway-Mayo IT €5,217 €5,217
Limerick IT €20,838.79 €7,588.51 €3,717.82* €32,145.12
College, Limerick €34,140.15 €2,152.50 €36,292.65
University College Cork €51,294.88 €24,460.50 €510 €76,265.38
Waterford IT€6,642 €10,000**€16,642
Total €111,490.82 €105,937.63 €10,510 €3,717.82 €231,656.27
* Stenography service to investigation
** WIT said "amount listed was not a settlement but rather awarded following an appeal of the initial decision of the case, which was successful"