Director of Human Rights, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at University of Limerick Dr Marie Connolly, who chairs the Irish Universities Association VPs group on equality, diversion and inclusion.
Thursday, January 27, 2022

University of Limerick has welcomed the publication of national surveys into student and staff experiences of sexual violence and harassment in higher education.

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris TD today launched the findings of the surveys, which collected data from respondents on their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

The surveys were informed by over 11,000 responses from staff and students in the sector and were carried out by the Higher Education Authority.

Launching the survey reports, Minister Harris said: “I really want to thank students and staff across the country who took the time to engage with this survey and share their experiences with us.

“Since I have been appointed, my Department and the Higher Education Authority have placed a real focus on ensuring third level is safe and a leader in the calls for change. Crucially, we needed a robust evidence base and this survey gives us vital information to inform further actions.

“The survey findings point to some positive developments in the higher education institutions that can be built upon in areas such as awareness raising and education.

“But there are also some deeply troubling findings, such as the levels of sexual harassment experienced by staff and students that responded to the survey and particularly the female students that reported that they had experienced sexual violence.

“This is a society wide issue and must be urgently tackled. In 2021, I asked all of the HEIs to publish Action Plans to tackle sexual violence and harassment, aligned with the Framework for Consent, and good progress is being made in implementing these across the sector, but there is much more to do. 

“My Department has been working closely with officials in the Department of Justice on the development of the Third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, which will be a whole of government strategy based on a zero-tolerance approach central to tackling these issues.”

Welcoming the survey, UL’s Director of Human Rights, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Dr Marie Connolly, said: “While it is positive that the majority of staff and students feel safe from sexual violence and harassment on campuses it is very clear that there is a lot more work to do.

“We are very aware that sexual violence and harassment is a societal issue and universities are very keen to play an active role in leading and influencing societal responses,” explained Dr Connolly, who chairs the Irish Universities Association VPs group on equality, diversion and inclusion.

“Universities have built up a significant body of expertise in this area, both practitioner, and research and policy expertise, and with appropriate investment, have the capability to significantly alter the experience of sexual violence and harassment particularly among women in our university communities, and in wider society,” Dr Connolly added.

The surveys showed that three forms of awareness raising on consent, sexual violence or harassment had been seen by half or more of the students in the survey.

Almost one in ten had taken part in a bystander event or programme or viewed a drama on consent, sexual violence or harassment. First Year students were more likely to have taken part in consent or bystander initiatives, reflecting the roll-out of consent initiatives as part of orientation for students commencing higher education in recent years.

Dr Pádraig MacNeela from NUI Galway led the analysis and reporting on the surveys. He said: “The students and staff who took part in these surveys provided insights on a wide range of topics, across sexual violence, harassment, consent education and supporting others. Taken together, the findings described a varied picture of strengths and resources, negative experiences and gaps in knowledge.

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

“By taking part in these surveys, students and staff across the country have highlighted for us the priorities that should be addressed to create a positive culture of respect, safety, and consent.”

The survey reports include a number of conclusions and recommendations, which will inform future policy decisions to tackle sexual violence and harassment. These include the following:

  • A systematic development programme of awareness raising, education, and training should be made available, supported by HE institutions, and promoted as an important priority
  • Continue work on disseminating easily understandable and accessible policies
  • Build sectoral capacity by supporting examples of good practice that can be shared
  • Devise a long term approach to research on student experiences
  • Support people affected by sexual violence and harassment

Dr Ross Woods, of the HEA Centre of Excellence for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, said: “The HEA is committed to ensuring a national campus culture that is safe, respectful and supportive for all staff and students. The Centre will now work with the HEA Advisory Group on Ending Sexual Violence in Higher Education Institutions to implement the recommendations of these reports.”

UL’s Consent Framework Steering Committee and Policy Review Group has developed an action plan to tackle sexual violence, sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. Read more here.

The survey reports can be accessed here.

Anyone impacted by these issues should contact their Higher Education Institution or text 50808 for help.