Minister Harris “stunned” by levels of sexual assault in higher education

Speaking at a meeting of the National Advisory Committe on sexual harassment and consent Harris stated his department would be “a vehicle of social inclusion”

This morning, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris met wiith the National Advisory Committe on sexual harassment and consent.

The committee is chaired by the Women’s Council Ireland.

Speaking at the meeting Harris stated that he believes his department is “a vehicle of social inclusion and driving the equality agenda.”

“I strongly believe this Department has a real chance to ensure everybody – regardless of origin or gender – should have an equal opportunity to access education and to gain employment,” Harris continued. 

He added: “But it is becoming increasingly clear to me that such opportunities are not available to all. In fact, your origin, gender, socioeconomic status, your parents’ income, your address can determine your access to third level education and to your ability to complete it.”

Speaking this morning, Harris stated how he wants to be a minister to “right those wrongs”, explaining that one of his first meetings in the new position was to meet USI President Lorna Fitzpatrick, where he was presented with the Sexual Experiences Survey (SES) results. 

The Sexual Experiences Survey conducted by the Union of Students’ in Ireland (USI) at the beginning of the year found that over half of female students experience some form of sexual misconduct during their time in college.

The survey of 6,000 third level students suggested that 44% of students experience some form of sexual misconduct while in college.

“A third of female students reported having been raped,” Harris stated. “Let that sink in.”

He continued: “Two thirds had been sexually harassed. I didn’t think I lived under a rock but I was stunned by its findings. It is the same shock I experienced when I launched the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s annual report last year.”

According to the survey, 52% of female students, 27% of male students and 49% of non-binary students reported having experienced sexual misconduct during their college years.

Harris explained: “Sexual harassment, sexual intimidation, rape, gender-based violence are becoming increasingly common crimes. Thankfully, many victims are more willing to come forward now but the warning signs in the USI survey should be a cause to action.”

He added: “We shouldn’t presume that the problem begins or ends in our third level institutions. When I was Minister for Health, I had the opportunity to visit all our maternity hospitals.” 

“It always struck me when I saw the cots lined up alongside each other. Nobody is born into hatred.,” Harris explained. “Nobody is born angry. Nobody is born intolerant. Nobody is born racist. Nobody is born to rape or sexual assault.”

Harris continued to explain that rape and sexual assault has become “part of the culture” in homes, workplaces and schools.

Harris explained that while his meeting today is a “listening exercise” for him, that does not have anything to do with his “determination” to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. He continued to explain that he wants the third level sector to be “a leader” and not a “problem area”.

Harris said: “Consent is not an option. It is a requirement.”

“I don’t care what a victim was wearing,” Harris continued. “I don’t care how many drinks the perpetrator or the victim had.”

Harris added: “I don’t care if you believed he or she was ‘up for it’ or not. I don’t care if they came home with you. Sex without consent is assault and it is a crime. We cannot address these issues unless we confront the uncomfortable reality that this is happening.”

“And we cannot address these issues unless we also confront the reality that this is not solely a problem among the student population but a reality for staff too,” Harris explained. “The question we must answer is how we address it. I have no interest in frameworks or guidelines that do not have deliverables.”

Harris continued to explain that the meeting this morning is not a “box-ticking” exercise for him, and that while the new department has the framework, they need “implementation” and “holding each other to account”.

Harris emphasisied that “we must challenge the misconception that this is a woman’s issue”, as “the more we see it through a gender specific lens, the more likely we are to fail”. He continued that it is “time for us to do something about it”.

Harris went on to promise that he and the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee will be a “voice for change” in the area, to “change laws that need to be changed”.

“I want my daughter to grow up in a world she is respected. Where she is safe,” Harris explained. “I want her and her children and their children to reap the benefits of the conversation we are beginning today.”

Shannon Connolly

Shannon Connolly is the Editor-in-Chief of the 69th volume Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister student of English Literature and Philosophy. She previously served as Deputy Editor, News Editor and Assistant News Editor.