The Union of Students in Ireland and the Active* Consent Programme at NUI Galway completed a Sexual Experiences Survey of over 6,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students across Irish higher education in 2020. The findings were stark and shocking.
The survey showed 52pc of females had been subjected to unwanted sexual touching, attempted or completed penetration since they had started in college. The comparative percentage for males was 27pc. Almost 50pc of non-binary individuals had experienced unwanted sexual misconduct while in college.
The students surveyed reported varying perpetrator tactics: 39pc of females surveyed reported acts of coercion; 41pc reported that they were incapacitated when assaulted; 25pc faced force or the threat of force. Most of the students surveyed knew the perpetrator.
We shouldn’t have been shocked because comparable findings had been made in other countries. However, this is the first time that we have concrete data in the Irish higher education scene. It is sobering.
We are a product of our society, so there is a good chance that there are similar levels of sexual violence and harassment across the broader community. The recent outpouring of empathy, anger and wish to disclose among women in the UK following the murder of Sarah Everard is a striking example of just how many people have been impacted by threat, harassment, unwanted approach, or fear of walking alone, even in daylight.
Even though this issue has broad societal implications, higher education institutions, are well positioned to lead social discourse and drive active responses. However, there is no quick fix.
Getting to grips with an issue of this complexity requires a sustained commitment, effective strategic execution, and serious resourcing. The target audience is constantly evolving as students enter and depart higher level education. Staff are also a target audience in terms of mobilisation.
In 2019, the Department of Education and Skills published a Consent Framework for higher education institutions. This Framework provides a roadmap for all institutions to develop a coherent and substantive approach towards addressing sexual violence and harassment.
Higher Education Minister Simon Harris is a strong advocate of the Framework. Tomorrow, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) is launching two national surveys covering staff and students to monitor experiences, to map awareness of policies and supports and to track engagement in education and training.
Each of the universities have embraced the Consent Framework, through practical actions, with associated timelines and measurable outcomes. The priority being given to effective delivery is evidenced by strong leadership and governance measures, clear policy adoption and active collaboration with internal and external stakeholders.
Each university has appointed a senior member of its management team to sponsor and lead its Framework implementation working group.
To be grounded in the reality of the survivor experience, active engagement is under way with local and national expert groups for advocacy, trauma and support. For example, NUI Galway has been working with Galway Rape Crisis Centre to hone our awareness-raising and training in disclosure to be trauma informed.
The higher education institutions have committed to work collaboratively, with the support of the HEA, to create accessible systems for students and staff to safely disclose and report incidents. It is critical the reporting systems are transparent and inclusive, and that students and staff are confident in their effectiveness.
We are starting from a low base here because, sadly, the Sexual Experiences Survey tells us that there has been a poor level of reporting among people that have been subjected to sexual harassment or violence. Indeed, some students felt they were only bringing more trouble on themselves if they reported an incident.
Higher education institutions have a big job to do to build confidence in the reporting systems they have put in place. For starters, it is critical that those who come forward are not retraumatised by the experience of reporting.
There is also a challenge in how best to undertake investigations. This will involve a complete rethink of existing complaints, investigative and disciplinary processes, through the lens of incidents of sexual harassment and violence.
Many of those who deal with complaints and disciplinary procedures in higher education require specialist training and access to additional experienced investigators to deal with complaints in an appropriate manner.
As more people report, the demand for counselling will also increase, underlining the importance of adequate resources to implement the systemic and cultural change envisaged.
Student counselling services are already over-extended in most institutions and the need for investment in this area of expertise has never been greater. All higher education institutions have a duty of care to their students, as does the Department and the Government.
Further education should provide a hugely stimulating, developmentally positive, and highly enjoyable time in people’s lives. Nobody should be subjected to harassment, coercion, abuse or violence. If they are they must have the ability to report and the comfort of support. It’s a basic human right.
Professor Anne Scott is chair of the Vice-Presidents for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Group, Irish Universities Association and Vice-President for Equality and Diversity at NUI Galway.