Third-level staff, students to be surveyed on sexual harassment

Colleges required to record and report cases annually under new safety initiative

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said the move represents the ‘opening of a conversation’  with students and staff of our higher education institutions. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said the move represents the ‘opening of a conversation’ with students and staff of our higher education institutions. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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All staff and students in higher education are to be surveyed on their experiences of sexual violence and sexual harassment during the coming weeks as part of a “zero tolerance” initiative to create safe campuses for all.

In addition, all colleges are being required to record and report cases of sexual harassment and bullying of staff and students on an annual basis.

The move comes amid concern at the scale of the problem. A survey by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) of 6,000 people last year found almost 30 per cent of female college students said they had experienced non-consensual sexual penetration.

UCD’s handling of a case in which academic Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin was harassed by a colleague for two years has also put the issue into the spotlight.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris is to publish a new national survey on sexual violence and sexual harassment on Monday which will be sent to all 30,000 staff and 235,000 students in higher education.

It will ask students and staff to detail any experience of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and sexual violence.

This includes crimes of sexual violence, sexual cyberbullying of any kind including non-consensual taking and/or sharing of intimate images, stalking behaviours and any verbal or physical harassment in a sexual context.

It will also ask staff their knowledge of policies, the availability of training and whether they feel safe in reporting allegations.

‘Open and honest’

Mr Harris said the move represents the “opening of a conversation” with students and staff of our higher education institutions.

“Our priority here is to have an open and honest conversation about sexual harassment and how our third-level sector can become a leader in confronting these challenges,” he said.

He said that while sexual misconduct can be committed by a person of any gender, the majority of victims are women.

“We know this can occur between people of the same or different genders. It is often targeted and perpetrated to demean, diminish and intimidate,” he said.

“Sexual misconduct may occur between strangers or acquaintances, including people involved in an intimate or sexual relationship.”

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) is to conduct surveys with a view to informing future national equality, diversity and inclusion planning.

HEA chief executive Dr Alan Wall said there is no longer a situation where reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment can be simply regarded as a “bureaucratic issue” or referred to external agencies.

“A cognitive shift is needed: one student sexually assaulted on campus or one early career researcher sexually harassed, is one too many,” he said.

Action plans

The survey will be open for a number of weeks and its findings are due to be published by the end of the current academic year.

The questionnaire is, by its nature, explicit and anyone impacted by these issues is being advised to contact their college or text 50808 (a HSE-funded support service) for help.

Mr Harris is due to update Cabinet later this month on action plans requested by individual higher education institutions.

The move stems from a framework introduced under Mr Harris’s predecessor, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, aimed at ending sexual harassment at third level.

All colleges have since been required to develop institutional action plans on tackling sexual violence and harassment, and report to the HEA on their progress.

The measures have included online consent training and online “bystander intervention” training, as well as the development of a national anonymous reporting tool for issues of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.

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