Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, met with the National Women’s Council this morning to implement a “zero tolerance policy” in relation to sexual violence and harassment in further and higher education.

The NWC and Minister Harris were accompanied at this meeting by representatives of the National Advisory Committee (NAC), a committee of relevant parties set up by the NWC to tackle this issue. 

Minister Harris addressed the National Advisory Committee and noted the Union of Students of Ireland’s survey of sexual harassment in third-level institutions which was presented to him in his initial meetings as the new Minister for Further and Higher Education. He said “a third of female students reported having been raped” and “two thirds had been sexually harrassed. I didn’t think I lived under a rock but I was stunned by its findings.”

At the meeting, it was reaffirmed that the Programme for Government will have an action plan focused on tackling the issue of sexual harassment. The NWC welcomed the establishment announced by Minister Harris at the meeting of a national HEI reporting system on consent framework implementation. As well as this, the NWC reported that the “Minister pledged to broaden the remit of the National Center of Excellence for Gender Equality to wider Equality Diversity and Inclusion, and to also expand the remit to include oversight of consent framework (Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive – Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions) implementation”.

The Director of the National Women’s Council, Orla O’Connor, stated that Harris’s swiftness in calling this meeting “sends a strong signal to the higher and further education sector of the seriousness with which he takes the issue of sexual violence and harassment in third level education for students and staff”. Minister Harris noted on his Twitter that he “sought this meeting so we can send a very clear message of zero tolerance when it comes to harassment”.

O’Connor continued; “Women aged 18-29 are most likely to experience sexual harassment and violence, and many of these will be students which makes them less likely to report these crimes when compared with other groups.” She added that “while sexual harassment and violence are not unique to higher and further education institutes, these institutes are uniquely placed in showing leadership on this issue and implementing zero tolerance culture and preventative measures that can drive the long term societal change needed to ensure all women are safe”.

The NWC deemed this meeting to be a success with key issues being addressed. Jennifer McCarthy Flynn, Head of Policy at NWC, said, “We will be calling on the Minister to ensure that the funding which was made available in 2019 to resource the NAC and the actions of student unions and institutions is secured in Budget 2021”. 

Minister Harris has said “I want practical measures to be agreed to ensure all institutions are inclusive, safe and respectful places”. He has said “we will prioritise it”. 

Adam O’Sullivan

Additional Reporting – Mahnoor Choudhry, Assistant News Editor