A report into sexual violence prevention at higher-level institutions has called for increased collaboration, training, and funding to tackle the issue. 

The PROPEL Report (Promoting Consent and Preventing Sexual Violence) by the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) involved consultation with trade unions, universities including University College Dublin (UCD), and survivors’ groups such as the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC). It also included consultation and funding at a governmental level from the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Further and Higher Education. 

The report is aimed at preventing sexual violence in higher education in Ireland. It contains ten high-level recommendations that aim to tackle the issue, including collaboration across the higher education sector, a standardised approach to combatting sexual violence, training for staff and students, and additional funding for universities. These recommendations are backed by proposed actions to help implement them, as well as guidance for universities on writing future policies. 

THEA emphasises the collaborative nature of the report, referencing the need to continue this collaboration across universities to prevent sexual harassment and violence: “The success of the THEA project is partly due to the collaborative and cooperative nature of all technological higher education institutions working together to achieve a level of consistency in the implementation of the National Framework. This collaboration and cooperation could be extended further through the creation of national resources to facilitate further collaboration.” 

The association also notes that the problem of sexual violence is a societal one, and must be dealt with at the societal level as well as in higher education. Hazel Chu, speaking at the launch of the report on March 15th, made note of this issue as well, stating “I also recognise the fact that sexual harassment and sexual violence are societal problems that require an ‘all of society’ approach. To that end, we need to look closely at how ‘consent’ is talked about with younger people, from childhood onwards.”

UCD made changes to its Dignity and Respect Policy in 2020 on the foot of widespread concerns that sexual harassment was not being dealt with by the university. UCD proposed two separate policies and procedures for complaints of bullying and sexual harassment, respectively. In 2020 several members of staff came forward alleging that the university did not provide adequate support to victims of sexual harassment or assault and that reform was needed in the area. This included Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, who was harassed by a colleague at UCD for two years after making authorities aware of the issue. 

Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the DRCC and a member of UCD’s Governing Authority, spoke to the College Tribune about the launch of THEA’s Propel report. 

“At Dublin RCC, we very much welcome the launch of THEA’s PROPEL report to address sexual abuse and harassment,” she told the College Tribune. “We were glad to have contributed our insights to THEA in its preparation. We like the broad sweep of the report, recognising that the problem of sexual abuse and harassment at third-level institutions has not received the attention it needed until now. In particular, we like the fact that it gives guidance on policies and procedures but also recognises the importance of work to prevent sexual violence in the first place, including a focus on consent.”

Blackwell also welcomes the progress in Irish higher education to prevent sexual violence: “We are seeing welcome and positive moves right across third-level institutions to implement the national Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions. We are convinced that as this work progresses, third level institutions will become safer, healthier, and more positive places for all who work in them.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by the issues in this column, the following supports are available:

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre – www.drcc.ie
Women’s Aid – https://www.womensaid.ie/services/helpline.html
Cosc The National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence  http://www.cosc.ie/
Student Counselling: https://www.ucd.ie/studentcounselling/

Isobel Dunne – Reporter