Education around consent should be a requirement, not an option in third level institutions - Harris

Simon Harris has announced that a survey is set to be carried out into harassment, sexual harassment and bullying in the country's higher education institutions.
Education around consent should be a requirement, not an option in third level institutions - Harris

In September, broadcaster and lecturer Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin spoke pubicly about her own experience of sexual harassment at UCD.

A survey is set to be carried out into harassment, sexual harassment and bullying in the country's higher education institutions.

The survey, which will look into harassment and bullying of both staff and students, was confirmed by Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris.

Speaking at an event for the Irish University Association today, Mr Harris said students and staff are entitled to a safe environment to study and work.

"We must work together to create a culture of zero tolerance, where education around consent is a requirement and not an option, not just for the students, but also for those teaching and guiding them."

A letter requiring specific institutional action plans on tackling sexual violence and harassment in third level institutions was sent to University Presidents of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) by the minister recently.

As part of this action plan, HEIs will be required to report statistics annually to the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

Mr Harris pointed to the lack of data indicating the extent of the problem and inconsistent recording of incidents by HEIs as a substantial barrier to tackling these issues.

"As part of working to improve this, a survey will be undertaken on harassment, sexual harassment and bullying of both staff and students in our higher education institutions," said Mr Harris.

"The survey will commence in the new year, and the Higher Education Authority is working closely with the higher education institutions in this regard.

"It is essential the voice of students and staff is at the centre of what we do and this survey will allow us to hear directly from them."

Dr Ross Woods of the HEA Centre of Excellence for Gender Equality said harassment of any description cannot be tolerated and said they are committed to addressing the issue head on.

"Now it is time to capitalise on this through the implementation of the Framework for Consent and to expand on this work to address the pressing issue of harassment of staff.

"From an equality perspective, we know that bullying and harassment can seriously affect the careers of young female academics and we are committed to addressing this issue head on."

In September, broadcaster and lecturer Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin spoke pubicly about her own experience of sexual harassment at UCD.

Dr Ní Shúilleabháin, an assistant professor at the college, told of interactions between herself and a male colleague over the course of two years.

Professor Hans-Benjamin Braun was charged with harassment in 2019 and was barred from contacting Dr Ní Shúilleabháin for a period of five years.

Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said she repeatedly reported the incidents to a UCD human resources department, providing them with detailed notes of various incidents before she eventually reported the matter to gardaí at the college's suggestion.

The harassment lasted for two years after she first brought it to the attention of the university.

UCD president Andrew Deeks has since apologised to Dr Ní Shúilleabháin and other colleagues and students who had suffered similar experiences at the university.

Speaking in September, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said sexual harassment in academia is a serious and systemic issue that is often left unchecked.

"This is also a huge issue for students in Ireland, with between 50-75% of undergrad students having reported experiencing sexual harassment in their first 3 years of study (Burke et al., 2020). This correlates with other similar studies internationally (e.g. 51% in Australia)," she wrote on Twitter.

"Harassment and sexual harassment contribute to the lack of gender equality of women in academia. In Ireland 24% of high-level Professor posts were held by women, compared to 51% women Lecturers which are entry level academic posts in the university sector (DES, 2017)."

She said addressing gender inequities at senior positions would not address the problem of sexual harassment in these institutions but it points to the fact that gender harassment is another cause of the gender inequity at senior levels.

She said: "I don't want anyone else, student or staff, to go through the same experiences I did.

"I hope that speaking publicly will begin a conversation that helps address this problem in third level institutes across Ireland and helps support other victims to report their experiences."

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, you can contact:

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre - 1800 77 88 88 Cork Sexual Violence Centre - 1800 496 496

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