Simon Harris to consider fining colleges who don't act on sexual harassment

Simon Harris to consider fining colleges who don't act on sexual harassment
Minister for higher education Simon Harris says his department is taking the issue of sexual harassment at universities and colleges "extremely seriously". File Picture.

Colleges that fail to take action to eliminate sexual assaults on campus could see their funding cut, higher education minister Simon Harris has warned.

He told universities and colleges they need to take concrete steps to tackle sexual and gender-based violence on campuses. They are expected to produce action plans as part of efforts to eliminate sex crimes in third-level institutions.

Mr Harris was speaking after meeting with the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the Union of Students of Ireland, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the Higher Education Authority, and representatives of universities, institutes of technology, and other sectoral bodies to discuss the matter. He said he intends "to take this issue extremely seriously".

"I hope it sends out a very strong message that, when it comes to sexual harassment in third-level institutions, there is a zero tolerance policy," he said.

The National Women's Council of Ireland welcomed the move, and wants to see a “holistic approach” in the sector to stamp out sex crimes across third-level.

Mr Harris said progress on the issue would be considered when it comes to allocating funds to third-level institutions, and during discussions with the Higher Education Authority.

Asked whether colleges could face fines if they failed to act on plans, Mr Harris said he would consider it.

He said colleges could roll out awareness campaigns immediately ahead of the new college term in September.

“Parents in Ireland need to know that their kids in Ireland are safe wherever they go. And it can't be 'oh look at best practice over here'. Best practice has to be the only practice, and has to become the national norm,” Mr Harris said.

Mr Harris signalled that consent classes could be rolled out in September.

He said: "One of the things that was raised consistently with me was the issue of compulsory consent classes. Some colleges have adopted this, but I believe they should now form part of orientation for the new academic year.

"The data shows people who take these classes are more informed and more aware of how to support and help their peers."

According to a survey published by the Union of Students in Ireland in June, three in 10 female students have reported non-consensual penetration by incapacitation, force, or threat of force during their time in college.

Mr Harris said gender-based violence was becoming an increasingly common crime.

“We know that reports of sexual assaults and rape peak during freshers' and rag weeks," he said.

“We need to challenge the perception of what sexual assault and harassment is. Not all cases involve violence. Not all leave visible marks. We must challenge the misconception that this is a woman’s issue. The more we see it through a gender-specific lens, the more likely we are to fail.”

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