Op Ed Prof Anne Scott 11 April - Tackling Sexual Violence and Harassment at Higher Level Colleges Requires a Coherent and Substantive Approach

The Union of Students in Ireland and the Active* Consent Programme at NUI Galway completed an extensive Sexual Experiences Survey of over 6,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students across Irish higher education in 2020. The findings were stark and shocking.

52% 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 27%. And almost 50% of non-binary individuals had experienced unwanted sexual misconduct since they commenced third-level education.

The students surveyed reported varying perpetrator tactics. 39% of females surveyed reported acts of coercion, 41% reported that they were incapacitated when assaulted. 25% 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 universities in Australia, the US and the UK. However, this is the first time that we have concrete data in the Irish higher education scene. And it is sobering.

We are a product of our society, so there’s a very good chance that there are similar levels of sexual violence and sexual harassment across broader society. Indeed, it would be naive of us to think otherwise.

The recent outpouring of comment, empathy, anger and wish to disclose amongst women in the UK following the disappearance and 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 broad daylight.

The reaction to the Sarah Everard case also strongly resonated here in Ireland. But this reaction isn’t a new phenomenon. Irish journalists have been writing about this in national media for years. Yet, the results of the Sexual Experiences Study demonstrate that the issue is even more stark than feared.

In 2019, the Department of Education & Skills published a Consent Framework for higher education institutions entitled Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive – Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions. This Consent Framework provides a roadmap for all institutions to develop a coherent, co-ordinated, and substantive approach towards addressing sexual violence and sexual harassment.

Minister Simon Harris,  as head of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, has been a strong advocate for use of the Framework to drive change across the higher education sector. The HEA is also playing an important role in facilitating and monitoring the effective execution of the Framework, and on April 12th will roll out two national surveys covering staff and students at Third Level.

The purpose of these surveys is to monitor experiences among all students and staff of sexual violence and harassment, to track awareness of policies and supports, and engagement in education, and training. The survey results will provide an overall picture of student and staff views on experiences of, and responses to sexual violence and harassment. The data will provide a baseline from which to identify priorities for improvement, and against which to assess the impact of Framework-based initiatives across the higher education system.

The universities have embraced the Consent Framework, driving through practical actions, with associated timelines and measurable outcomes. The priority being given to effective delivery can be seen across every university, through leadership and governance measures, policy adoption, collaboration with internal and external stakeholders. Thousands of students each year engage with practical initiatives for promotion of positive, active consent and prevention of violence or harassment, such as consent training and bystander intervention programmes. Each higher education institution has appointed a senior member of its management team to sponsor and lead the institution’s Consent Framework implementation working group. Moreover, each working group has inclusive representation from all key stakeholders.

To ensure that these policies and actions are properly grounded in the reality of the survivor experience, universities have been encouraged to engage with local and national expert groups and services for advocacy, trauma and support . For example, NUI Galway has been working in collaboration with Galway Rape Crisis Centre to hone our awareness raising and training in disclosure to the imperative of the Consent Framework to be trauma-informed.

The higher education institutions have committed to work collaboratively, with the support of the HEA, in creating an accessible system for students and staff to safely disclose and report incidents. It is critical that the reporting system is transparent and inclusive, and that students and staff are confident in its effectiveness.

Our staff have a particularly important role to play also. Not only have staff a responsibility to be role models in supporting and believing survivors, but many have also had experience of sexual violence or harassment as members of society, and crucially are a foundation for our capacity in universities to properly handle disclosures.

We are starting from a low base here because sadly, the Sexual Experiences Survey tells us that there has been a very poor level of reporting amongst people that have been the subject of sexual harassment or violence. Indeed, some students felt that they were only bringing more trouble on themselves if they reported an incident.

A reporting system is only as good as the confidence it engenders. Hence, higher education institutions have a huge job to do to build confidence in the reporting systems they put in place and the associated supports. For starters, it is critical that those who come forward are not re-traumatised by the experience of reporting. This requires that institutions focus on trauma-informed and practical supports for those coming forward with disclosures.

In other countries, universities employ anonymised reporting systems where, in reporting an incident of abuse anonymously, the complainant can be assisted to freely decide what supports to avail of within the institution for health advice or counselling. UCD has piloted an online “report and support” tool which will be examined closely by the sector, to inform the roll out of a similar “Speak Out” tool across all Irish higher education institutions.

In addition to broadening the optimum supports for people, there is also a challenge in how best to undertake investigations. This will involve a complete re-think of existing complaints, investigative and disciplinary processes, through the lens of incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Many of those who deal with complaints and disciplinary processes and procedures in higher education, in light of the Consent Framework recommendations, feel that they need 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, another example of the importance of adequate resources to implement the systemic and cultural change envisaged in our implementation plans. Student counselling services are already over-extended in most institutions and the need for recurrent 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.

For those who have the opportunity of further and higher education, it should provide a hugely stimulating, developmentally positive, and highly enjoyable time in their lives. Nobody should be subjected to harassment, coercion, abuse or violence. And if they find themselves the subject of such an experience, 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, NUI Galway.

A shorter version of this Opinion Editorial was published in the Sunday Independent on 11th April