Consent put in spotlight at Irish colleges

A new campaign surrounding consent is running across universities and colleges, now that students have returned. Dr Avril Hutch, Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at UCC, and Professor Louise Crowley, School of Law, UCC, tell us more
Consent put in spotlight at Irish colleges

52% of females had been subjected to unwanted sexual touching, attempted or completed penetration since they had started in college.

IT’S a sobering fact that sexual violence and harassment is a problem on Ireland’s higher-level campuses and is significantly under-reported.

As students return to college, higher level institutions around the country, including UCC, are putting in place a wide range of measures to drive awareness and to strongly encourage conversations on consent.

In a sector-wide initiative, the #UnmuteConsent campaign has been launched to mobilise students to enhance their own knowledge about consent and to speak out when they experience or witness unacceptable behaviour.

This campaign has the strong backing of:

Union of Students in Ireland

Irish Universities Association

Technological Higher Education Association

Higher Education Authority

The Union of Students in Ireland and the Active* Consent Programme completed a Sexual Experiences Survey with 6,026 respondents from undergraduate and postgraduate students across Irish higher education in 2020. The findings were stark.

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 while they were in college. Most of the students surveyed knew the perpetrator. This is the first time that we have concrete data in the Irish higher education scene.

We are a product of our society, so there is a good chance that there are similar levels of sexual violence and harassment across the broader community.

Even though this issue has broad societal implications, higher education institutions, as centres of education and research, are well positioned to lead social discourse and drive active responses.

However, it is important to recognise that there is no quick fix. Getting to grips with an issue of this complexity requires a sustained commitment, effective strategic execution, and serious resourcing. The target audience is constantly evolving as students enter and depart higher level education. Staff are also a target audience in terms of mobilisation.

Professor Louise Crowley, University College Cork. Picture: Tomas Tyner, UCC.
Professor Louise Crowley, University College Cork. Picture: Tomas Tyner, UCC.

Ireland’s higher education institutions have embraced the National Consent Framework, which provides a roadmap to develop a coherent approach towards addressing sexual violence and harassment through practical actions, with associated timelines and measurable outcomes.

To be grounded in the reality of the survivor experience, active engagement is underway with local and national expert groups for advocacy, trauma and support.

As students return to campuses at UCC and around the country, consent will form part of their induction programme, in addition to advice on tools and support available. The #UnmuteConsent campaign is an important facilitator in this regard.

The campaign encourages students to:

  • Speak out or report when they experience or see unacceptable behaviour.
  • Actively challenge perceived norms of unacceptable behaviour
  • Talk about consent and relationships in a positive and confident manner
  • Practice consent in their own relationships and interactions.

Additionally, students in UCC and in Higher Level institutions across Ireland will receive Bystander Intervention training at Orientation to introduce them to their capacity to actively challenge unacceptable behaviour and to speak out against all forms of sexual harassment and violence. The UCC Bystander Intervention programme educates students to identify acts of sexual misconduct, cultivates their sense of personal responsibility to support friends in uncomfortable or threatening situations and empowers them to make safe and effective interventions, demanding a safer and more respectful campus for all.

The higher education institutions have committed to work collaboratively to create accessible systems for students and staff to safely disclose and report incidents. 

It is critical that the reporting systems are transparent and inclusive, and that students and staff are confident in their effectiveness.

We are starting from a low base here because sadly, the Sexual Experiences Survey tells us that there has been a poor level of reporting amongst people that have been subjected to sexual harassment or violence.

EDr. Avril Hutch, Director for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, University College Cork.
EDr. Avril Hutch, Director for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, University College Cork.

Higher education institutions have a big job to do to build confidence in the reporting systems they have put in place. 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 disclosures.

There is also a challenge in how best to undertake investigations. Many of those who deal with complaints and disciplinary procedures in higher education, require 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, underlining the importance of adequate resources to implement the systemic and cultural change envisaged.

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.

Finally, we encourage any student reading this article to find out more about the campaign at www.unmuteconsent.ie

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