Thousands of college students experienced sexual violence or harassment – study

More than a third of female respondents said they experienced ‘non-consensual sex’

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris says the survey revealed ‘deeply troubling’ findings. Photograph: iStock

Thousands of college students at third level say they have experienced sexual violence or harassment, according to a national study on sexual harassment in higher education.

The figures are contained in an online poll of almost 8,000 students and 3,500 staff across all third-level institutions last year which collected data from respondents on their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Almost 6,000 students responded to questions on sexual violence. Some 14 per cent said yes when asked if someone “had oral sex with them while they were incapacitated and unable to give consent”, while 7 per cent said this had happened when they were physically forced to do so.

More than 3,000 female students responded to questions on non-consensual sex. Of these, 34 per cent – more than 1,100 students – experienced non-consensual vaginal penetration through coercion, incapacitation, force, or threat of force.


A large majority of students also said they had experience of sexist harassment or hostility.

This included the experience of being treated differently because of gender, offensive remarks, being put down or condescended to because of gender.

More than half of the student respondents said they had also experienced examples of sexual harassment such as repeatedly being told offensive sexual jokes, unwelcome attempts at being drawn into a discussion of sexual matters or offensive remarks about appearance, body or sexual activities.

On a more positive note, a majority of students agreed that they felt safe from sexual violence and harassment at their accommodation and around the campus. A third or less felt safe socialising at night on campus or in the local community.

A majority of students said it was likely that their college would support a student who made a report of sexual misconduct, while about half or more of students were aware of awareness-raising campaigns on consent, sexual violence or harassment. Up to a third had engaged with an initiative aimed at tackling these issues.

‘Deeply troubling’

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said the survey findings pointed to some positive developments such as awareness raising,

However, there were also “deeply troubling” findings, such as the levels of sexual harassment experienced by staff and students and particularly the female students that reported they had experienced sexual violence.

“This is a society-wide issue and must be urgently tackled,” he said.

Among staff, the survey found a large majority agreed they felt safe from sexual violence or sexual harassment at their college.

Three-quarters or more of staff members agreed that they would be willing to complete training on bystander intervention awareness and consent awareness if such training was made available.

Of staff that responded to the questions in relation to sexual harassment (2,900), a quarter described experiencing sexualised comments, nearly a third described sexual hostility and 60 per cent described sexist hostility.

Low levels of sexual violence were reported by staff who responded to questions on this issue. The most common form of unwanted sexual contact was being touched in a way that made them feel uncomfortable (12 per cent).

The surveys were conducted in April-May 2021, with the survey link sent to 245,000 students and some 30,000 staff members in higher education. The response rate to the staff survey was 12 per cent and student survey was 3 per cent.

Dr Pádraig MacNeela of NUI Galway, who led the analysis and reporting on the surveys, said the findings described a varied picture of strengths and negative experiences.

“For example, a majority of people trusted that their college will support them, and a large majority endorsed positive behaviour and active consent,” he said.

“Yet alongside these strengths there were gaps in knowledge about how to make complaints or access supports through their institution. We also identified a high level of sexual violence and harassment experienced by students in particular.”

He said the survey results will help identify the priorities that should be addressed to create a “positive culture of respect, safety, and consent.”

The Irish Universities Association said universities were keen to play an active role in influencing societal responses to these issues and they had built up a significant body of expertise in this area.

The Technological Higher Education Association said that while its member institutions have worked hard to embed consent frameworks in their institutions, further investment was needed to fund essential activities. This included the creation of investigators and sexual misconduct prevention and response managers.

Mr Harris said “good progress” is being made by colleges in implementing  action plans to tackle sexual misconduct across the sector, but “there is much more to do.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent