Thursday, 8 July 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Third Level Education
13. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the progress regarding implementation of the Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions: Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive - Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36845/21]
This question asks the Minister to outline progress regarding implementation of the Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions: Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive - Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions, and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Our higher education institutions have a duty of care to their students and staff and a responsibility to foster a campus culture that is clear in the condemnation of unwarranted, unwanted and unacceptable behaviours, which act as barriers to their safety and active participation in college life.
In April 2019, the framework for consent in higher education institutions, called Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive — Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions, was launched by the then Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor. To assist institutions with implementation of the framework, funding of more than €400,000 has been allocated to a number of initiatives. In addition, the Higher Education Authority has allocated funding of in excess of €500,000 to such areas as consent workshops, the development of the anonymous report and support tool, and the UCC bystander intervention programme. Prior to and since the launch of the framework, institutions would have undertaken activities in this area as part of their student services remit within their overall funding allocations.
In August 2020, in my first letter to presidents of higher educations institutions, I asked them to strengthen institutional action in this area. It is not enough to have a national framework. We need to know what is being done in each college to have a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and violence. I have asked each of them to put in place an action plan on tackling sexual violence and harassment. I am pleased to say the action plans have been received by the HEA. Institutions must, for the first time, report annually to the HEA on their progress in implementing these frameworks.
In April of this year, I launched the first ever surveys into staff and student experiences of sexual violence and sexual harassment in our higher education institutions. The surveys were conducted by the HEA and sent to all staff and students by the higher education institutions. A report on these surveys should be available to my Department in a number of months.
I want to see our higher education institutions embed the framework for consent into all their policies and procedures. I also want to see the domestic violence leave policy that NUI Galway has introduced come into all our institutions. I have written to all presidents of publicly funded higher education institutions suggesting this.
It is important we have inclusive education where people feel safe at work and when they are studying. In autumn, I read that less than half of the sexual assault and harassment concerns reported by students in the academic year 2018-19 were investigated by colleges. I am aware that considerable supports have been allocated to a number of initiatives in the area. If reported cases have been increasing over the years, investigations by universities and colleges must also be increased. The voices need to be heard. I ask the Minister to address that. I welcome the funding. This is important. It is all about communication and funding is the key.
I agree with the Deputy. What extra benefit do we expect to see from the action plans as opposed to just having a national framework? The big change is that, for the first time, the higher education institutions cannot just produce a plan. They also have to report against the delivery of the plan to the Higher Education Authority, just as they would report against budgetary matters and the like. That is important. It is us as a State saying we believe this is such an important issue that we want institutions to report their progress annually to the HEA. The action plans must be published and available for all staff and students. Institutions cannot hide behind or under a national framework but must say what is being done in the individual institution.
The plans will vary somewhat from college to college because they need to take ownership of them, but they have a number of common features. These will include consent classes for students, which is important, and development of an anonymous reporting tool so it is even easier for people to report sexual harassment and violence. That will help create that culture of zero tolerance. Sexual harassment is a real epidemic in society. It is not unique to third level but I want to see third level lead in how we solve this issue and adopt a zero tolerance approach.
I welcome the action plan that will be in colleges and the Minister's commitment to foster a culture in higher education where it is clear that unwanted behaviours are not acceptable. That is so important. It is crucial that meaningful participation is supported to allow the voices, needs, views and experiences of those most impacted by issues to be heard and for future supports to be targeted to meet their needs around safety, reporting and access to supports.
The recent survey on this issue in our higher education institutions is welcome but I understand the response from students and staff has been low. That is a real concern. Do we need to look at changing measures? What are we doing to enable adequate stakeholder consultation? What about the timeline? There is concern, given the low uptake from students and staff. Will the Minister come back to me on that?
I will, indeed. I do not have the exact numbers but the report on the survey is being prepared and will be available to me in October. Many thousands of people have applied but I am not sure what the percentage uptake is. I will find that out for the Deputy.
Our students unions and individual institutions have shown leadership on this, whether it is the active consent programme in NUI Galway or the bystander initiative in UCC and the work being done by Louise Crowley there. I attended a meeting of the national advisory committee within weeks of being appointed to office and was encouraged by the work being done by the National Women's Council of Ireland, which chairs it, the Union of Students in Ireland and staff representatives. They have taken ownership of it. While there is a lot more to do and I was not satisfied enough was being done, I would not want that to be misinterpreted as dismissing the leadership being done by many students and staff in saying they want to adopt a zero tolerance approach. The Department will support them in advancing that urgent agenda.