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Further and Higher Education

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (62)

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill


62. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will report on the operation of the Speak Out tool for the anonymous reporting of violence and harassment in higher and further education institutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58538/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Carroll MacNeill. As the Minister will recall, Speak Out is an online, anonymous reporting tool for incidents of bullying, harassment, discrimination, assault, sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is being led by the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland, PCHEI, group. Following the Minister’s launch last month of Speak Out, I am hoping to get an update on its roll-out and operations to date.

I thank Deputy Dillon for this important and timely question. The Speak Out tool, launched last month, as the Deputy said, is an online, anonymous reporting tool for incidents of bullying, harassment, discrimination, assault, sexual harassment and sexual assault, led by the PCHEI group, with funding provided by my Department. Speak Out allows staff and students to report harassment across all equality grounds, including sexual misconduct and racial discrimination.

The platform is currently available in the higher education sector and is being rolled out across 18 higher education institutions to support staff, students and visitors in speaking out against misconduct. So far, 14 higher education institutions have begun using the tool, while University College Dublin, UCD, already has a similar reporting tool in place. It is important to note that not everyone is ready to speak out through formal avenues, such as an official report, and this anonymous reporting tool will allow victims to detail their experiences through a safe, trauma-informed platform. This tool will raise awareness of the supports available to students and staff and encourage them to seek help, if they need it, and will provide them with access to the required information in that regard. It is hoped that engagement with this tool will encourage individuals to make formal complaints if and when they feel comfortable and ready to do so.

The tool enables institutions to track incidents across campuses. That will be important, in addition to enabling individuals to submit reports. The tool will provide data, and this facility will enable institutions to first track incidents and then to inform their review of policies and procedures and to develop targeted approaches. This includes tackling misconduct and also creating formal reporting routes for affected staff and students. As part of the framework for consent, institutions must report incidents of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault to the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and this tool will allow them to do so in a timely and standardised fashion. I welcome, in particular, that institutions will report next year on statistics gathered through this tool and an assessment of its impact and usage will be carried out at the end of this academic year.

It is a great initiative and it is fantastic to see a national roll-out of this tool. That is certainly aligned with the ethos of cross-institutional collaboration in response to misconduct in the higher education institutions. This aspect is very welcome. Depending on the impact of the initiative, and its success in combating this behaviour, I hope that we will see the number of institutions using the tool grow beyond the current total of 18 that have signed up so far during this roll-out. I am conscious that the development of the tool was initially funded by the then Department of Education and Skills in late 2019 and early 2020 to the tune of €80,000. That development was supplemented with funding from the HEA in 2020 to the amount of €96,000. Prevention is also of paramount importance, and I note that additional funding of €400,000 has been allocated to several initiatives around the subject of consent. I would appreciate any further information that the Minister might be able to provide regarding this initiative.

I am really pleased by the progress being made in the sector. I thank the staff and student leaders in the sector for all the work that is taking place on the issue of consent and sexual harassment and ensuring that good reporting tools are in place in this regard. Good work had been done in respect of developing a national framework, but national frameworks are not enough. Institutions must own the framework and they must determine what they are going to do on their campuses to keep their staff and students safe.

For the first time, all institutions in Ireland must have an action plan on tackling sexual harassment, specific to each institution, published on their websites, and they must also report to the HEA on delivery. Some good work is underway in the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's city of Galway on the Active* Consent programme. Dr. Pádraig MacNeela is leading that initiative. It is a really good information resource for staff and students, and these are tools that simply did not exist until recent years. The University College Cork, UCC, Bystander Intervention programme is similar. This issue is not confined to higher education, but I want the sector to lead in this area and we have many leaders working tirelessly to ensure that happens.

I thank the Minister. We must ensure that the Speak Out tool will be therapeutically beneficial to those speaking out. The hope is that engagement with the tool will encourage those using it to seek support. Support and intervention in this regard are crucially important. Most important of all, however, support services must be provided to those speaking out, once they have submitted a report, to assure them that we believe them and that we stand with and support them. I understand that these support services are based on the answers given throughout the online tool reporting process and that it provides a bespoke and tailored list of support services. I wish to confirm that is a key priority. We must ensure that the required services are there and in place to coincide with the roll-out of the tool.

It very much is, and, as the Deputy said, it is so important that the tool uses affirmative language as well, because this is an anonymous reporting tool. It is based on similar tools used in higher education institutions in the United Kingdom. As a result of anonymity, the tool uses affirmative language, such as “perpetrator”, to assure those speaking out that we believe them, and that we stand with them. Through this trauma-informed lens, it has been ensured that the tool will be therapeutically beneficial to those speaking out through those affirmations. The hope is that engagement with the tool will assist victims in seeking support and also, in due course, in making a formal report.

Support services are provided to those speaking out once they have submitted a report. Those support services are based on the answers given throughout the online form and, as the Deputy suggested, this provides a bespoke and tailored list of support services. A list of all support services is also available prior to filling out the online form. The support services, therefore, are available at the start, but at the end, once the form has been submitted online, a tailored range of bespoke victim-centred approaches are provided in respect of supports as well.