Many universities from across the country have issued responses following a recent survey highlighting the prevalence of non-consensual sexual experiences among university students. In light of the report, several representatives of University College Dublin’s staff and Students Union have acknowledged the universities acute awareness of this issue, and the importance of working to tackle it. 

Professor Jason Last, Dean of Students in UCD and his UCD ESHTE (Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Third Level Education) colleagues virtually attended the launch of ‘The Sexual Experiences Survey’ by NUI Galway’s Active Consent Programme & Union of Students in Ireland in the last week. The report found that almost a third of female and non-binary students reported to have experienced “non-consensual penetration by incapacitation, force, or threat of force” while attending college, along with 10% of male students. In addition, more than half of all first-year respondents said they had experienced some form of sexual hostility in college, while 50% of all men, 37% of women and 33% of non-binary students of those students had never reported their assault. 

Speaking to The College Tribune, Professor Last has said “the report tells us just how prevalent the issues of sexual violence and harassment are, both in society and for the community of third level students across the sector. Unfortunately, we have no reason to believe that this is any less of an issue for our students than it is for students associated with USI institutions. This is something that has been recognised by UCD, and we are actively promoting a culture of zero tolerance to sexual violence and harassment for all members of our community.”

Ruairí Power, UCD’s Welfare Officer, has echoed Professor Last’s comments in a statement calling the report “a shocking and upsetting revelation”. He has praised the “positive” developments initiated by the university in recent months, but highlighted the need to go further – “Students need to receive comprehensive education about consent at a much earlier stage, we cannot continue to fire fight this issue at Third Level and not seek to resolve it at an earlier stage.” Power has called on the new government to re-examine ‘The Enacting the Provision of Objective Sex Education bill’ “to ensure that students have access to objective and accurate information about relationships, sexuality and consent in primary and post-primary settings.”

Since 2017, UCD has been one of the founding members of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) National Advisory Committee (NAC) relating to ending sexual violence and harassment in third-level education. Through this participation, the university has committed to putting in place structures for enhancing support, consolidating disclosure and information platforms and engaging with the academic community to bring focused research to the implementation and delivery phases of any associated initiatives. UCD has since put in place a UCD ESHTE group consisting of staff, faculty and students, which has led to a coordinated approach to the problems of sexual assault and harassment.

According to Professor Last, The UCD ESHTE group has brought five initiatives to the University that are expected to have a “wide” impact on fostering a culture of responsibility and support which is clear in its condemnation of unwanted and unacceptable behaviours. These include; the ‘It Stops Now Campaign’, the training of key staff and students in sexual assault disclosure, enabled through the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, and Consent workshops (which dovetail with the other ESHTE initiatives through the academic calendar).

In light of the report, Professor Last has said “we are aware that incidents of sexual violence and harassment are underreported” but that he “hopes that two programmes of work in particular; bystander education and anonymous reporting, will impact significantly over the next academic year”.

The ‘Bystander Programme’, which aims to educate students on how bystanders can intervene to prevent sexual harassment was completed as a pilot in the last academic year. It has recently been approved for expansion to all incoming students in the coming academic year.

‘The UCD Anonymous Reporting Tool’, an anonymous report and support tool was developed in the first trimester of the last academic year and launched to staff and students in January/February 2020. UCD is the first Irish university to develop such a tool. It is hoped the project will enable the University to direct those reporting incidents to appropriate support services and formal complaint procedure, and monitor and report on the number and categories of incidents bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. In addition, it hopes to help the University better understand its culture in relation to dignity and respect issues and raise the profile of the issues faced by all members of the University community. 

According to Professor Last, the project is “aligned to a culture of zero tolerance to issues of sexual violence, the data arising from the anonymous reporting tool will be used at College and University level to help raise awareness and promote the development of local initiatives.”

Professor Last has acknowledged that “A lot of work has been done” by UCD in recent years to fight against sexual violence and harassment, however, as ‘The Sexual Experience Survey” highlights, “much more needs to be done to tackle the problem.” – The reporting tool is open to all members of the community and also to visitors to UCD. 

If you have been impacted by issues of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment or sexual violence you can report it without the need to provide your identity here. You can also find links to the various internal and external supports.

Gemma Farrell – Reporter