HEA report shows over 20% of sexual violence and harassment against students occurring on college campuses

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

In a report published today by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), surveys found that female and gender non-binary students faced the highest rates of sexual violence and harassment

The survey was conducted between April and May 2021, after the HEA established an expert Advisory Group on ending Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment in HEIs (Higher Education Institutes) in January that year. 11,417 responses were recorded, with 7,901 respondents being students and 3,516 staff. 

The report’s findings showed that sexual violence and harassment disproportionately affects female and gender non-binary students. Six in ten students described experiencing sexualised comments that included reference to their identity as female or male. “Almost one third of female students described experiencing this form of harassment ‘Often’ or ‘Many times’, compared with 9% of males. Non-binary students were more likely than other groups to describe experiencing sexualised comments that referenced their trans / non-binary identity, while bisexual students and students who were gay, lesbian, queer, or another sexual orientation were most likely to experience sexualised comments referencing their sexuality.”

Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris responded to the reports findings earlier: “today’s survey results highlight the challenges facing us and the difficulties we face in responding to them. These are some deeply troubling findings. This is a society-wide issue and must be urgently tackled.”

Of the surveys respondents, a further 3,496 female students and 551 male students agreed to answer follow up questions on sexual harassment. A further 111 gender non-binary studens agreed to answer follow up questions. The data gathered from this part of the survey found that “nearly all of the female students and gender non-binary students who responded to the follow up questions said a man had been responsible for the incident that they cited. Four in ten of the male students indicated that a man had been involved, but 60% said that a woman had been involved.” Over half of the students who responded to this section of the survey said that the person responsible for the incident was another student.

Five percent of female students said the person responsible for the incident was a staff member at their own or another higher education institution. The rate was similar for male respondents, and slightly higher for gender non-binary students. Just over one in five students (22%) said the incident had happened on campus while 17% said it had happened during an activity related to their higher education institution (e.g., club/society event, placement, trip away).

The report included Almost half (49%) of females described having some experience of non- consensual sexual touching followed by non-binary students (43%), those who preferred not to say their gender (27%), and males (20%). Female students who responded to questions regarding “non-consensual vaginal penetration (over 1100 students), 34.2% experienced non-consensual vaginal penetration through coercion, incapacitation, force, or threat of force.”

More female students (37%) said they thought the incident would be viewed as their fault compared with males (27%) or non-binary students (20%). Females were also most likely to report feeling shame or embarrassment (51%).

Students with a disability were shown to be at a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence and harassment. Female students with a disability (952 respondents) had a rate of experiencing sexual touching through coercion, at 43%, compared to female students without a disability, at 30%. 

Less than half (45%) of the students said it was likely that the HEI would take action to address factors that may have led to the sexual violence and/or harassment. “79% students agreed that they felt safe from sexual violence and harassment at their accommodation, and 59% agreed that they felt safe on campus.”

Male students were more likely to agree that they felt safe - “68% of males agreed they felt safe from sexual violence and harassment when socialising at night in the college town, compared with 8% of females, 12% of students with a non-binary gender identity, and 27% of students who preferred not to state their gender identity.”

The survey, which was conducted at the request of Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, is intended to monitor the “experiences of students and staff in relation to sexual violence and harassment in higher education institutions” in order to create a “robust evidence base for further policy and funding decisions in relation to tackling sexual violence and harassment.”