Learning the lessons from third level sexual harassment

Do third-level institutions have a specific problem with bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, and what can be done to limit the likelihood of this occurring, given the problems with the same issue in wider society?

It’s a bit of tester, and one not just limited to students of sociology or law. The Irish Examiner sent freedom of information (FOI) requests to almost two dozen third-level colleges and universities asking about the prevalence of claims of bullying, intimidation, and harassment.

Those showed that cases are or have been investigated over the past two years, and that the move to remote learning did not make the issues go away. There was some evidence that technology can facilitate unwanted and unacceptable behavior between peers, both students and staff.

Last December this newspaper reported that University College Dublin authorities had received 28 complaints alleging harassment or bullying, including seven allegations of sexual harassment, since the start of 2020.

The Research Building, Belfield campus, UCD.

The only other university with a similar level of allegations of sexual harassment is Trinity College Dublin, with seven cases reported since the start of 2020 involving students, and one other in which someone external to the college allegedly sexually harassed a staff member.

News of the relatively high rate of reported claims in UCD was welcomed by Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, assistant professor at the UCD School of Mathematics and Statistics. She had gone public with her experiences at the university, having endured two years of workplace harassment and stalking.

  Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin.  Photograph Moya Nolan
Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin. Photograph Moya Nolan

Afterwards said she had reported the incidents to university authorities at an early stage and she later received a written apology from UCD president Professor Andrew Deeks.

On the data revealed by FOI, she said: “The whole purpose of me going public was to highlight that this was an issue.”

Assistant professor Ní Shúilleabháin, who was last year invited onto the UCD dignity and respect committee, said: “I would be heartened, in a strange way, by these numbers because I think it means people are coming forward.

I think the climate has changed around talking about this in UCD, because it had to.”

Others agree. Professor Louise Crowley is a senior lecturer in family law at University College Cork, and also leads the Bystander Intervention programme. Available to students and staff, it tries to highlight the danger of normalizing and accepting abusive behaviour, and to help those undertaking the program to understand their capacity to intervene as “pro-social bystanders”.

Prof Crowley believes we are now “at a moment in time” where there is a real focus on addressing issues of gender-based violence and harassment, and that UCD has been one of the universities leading the way. For her, the “real gamechanger” was the launch in April 2019 of the National Framework for Sexual Harassment and Violence which placed an obligation on colleges to be proactive in dealing with these issues.

“We are now in a new landscape where institutions have formal and non-formal reporting systems side-by-side and more available and visible supports and student training, and much more likely to spot unacceptable behaviour,” she said.

It means that people have faith in the system, they can come forward and report.”

There are still challenges, including balancing the rights of the complainant and those of an alleged perpetrator, and funding the programs aimed at training and educating those at third level, both staff and students, to create a safer environment.

It’s also an issue that the Government has engaged with. Last January, Ministers Helen McEntee and Simon Harris launched an online consent hub on sexual consent, with a focus on third-level — a day after the Higher Education Authority published the results of an extensive survey of those attending and working at colleges.

It found that more than half of respondents had experienced examples of sexual harassment such as repeatedly being told offensive sexual stories or jokes (54%), unwelcome attempts at being drawn into a discussion of sexual matters (58%), or offensive remarks about appearance , body, or sexual activities (57%).

Regarding UCC, two cases of sexual harassment have been investigated since the start of 2020 — one staff versus staff, and another where a student is alleged to have harassed a staff member. Alongside these were three allegations of staff versus staff bullying and one of bullying by a student against a member of staff. Of these six claims, the university said all relate to the timeframe before the pandemic; one investigation was carried out and the complaint was not upheld.

The UCC Quadrangle.  Picture: Tomas Tyner, UCC.
The UCC Quadrangle. Picture: Tomas Tyner, UCC.

The numbers are similar and not necessarily of any pattern at many of the other colleges. For example, at the University of Limerick there were four cases of bullying and harassment notified since the start of 2020 — three involving electronic means and each involving a student submitting a complaint about another student.

As if to outline the role of online involvement in some cases, at NUI Galway there were 20 complaints of alleged bullying or harassment in the past two years, including 16 in 2021, and 18 involved electronic means. Of the 16 complaints made last year, 13 were described as “online bullying/harassment/sexual harassment”, all involving students making claims against other students, while one separate case was described as sexual harassment, involving “student/staff”. Sanctions were applied in 10 cases last year.

Prof Crowley sees the prevalence of online harassment — something likely exacerbated by the move to online learning during the pandemic — and the survey results released by the HEA in January as indicative of the work that still needs to be done, but she believes that the sector has addressed the issues head-on and the work done could be applied more broadly across society.

At third-level, it is kind of unique because we are uniquely positioned, we have a target audience of students and we are educators, and it is that campus collective community mindset and a shared desire for learning and change,” she said.

But the requests for Bystander training from schools and workplaces have been flooding in.

“We can be the sector to show the way forward for other sectors and other industries,” she added.

Maybe there’s an answer to that question after all.

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