The Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor TD, has published a Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions. This arises out of a consultation with the Consent Expert Group, who wish to implement the best practices for ensuring consent from around the world in Ireland’s universities. The Framework’s purported vision is “to ensure an institutional campus culture which is safe, respectful and supportive,”.
Minister O’Connor’s framework predicates its action on the following definitions: sexual consent is “the freely given verbal or non-verbal communication of a feeling of willingness to engage in sexual activity”, sexual misconduct is “any form of unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that may be subject to disciplinary proceedings”, while rape and sexual assault take their respective definitions from section 2 of the Criminal Law (Rape) 1981 Act and section 2 of the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act 1981.
The Framework intends to achieve outcomes in four specific areas: institutional culture, institutional processes, institutional policies, and initiatives targeted towards students and staff. University senior management must establish working groups to devise how they will implement the Framework and will attempt to install a balanced architecture for reporting sexual assault. Universities shall also record statistics on harassment, assault, and rape and report these to higher education authorities. Universities must also provide activities to directly address and educate students on these policies. This shall include workshops outlining how consent works and ongoing messages to disseminate information across campus to the student body. There must also be a system for measuring these initiatives.
Minster O’Connor has been very forthright that the implementation of this Framework is not a one-stop shop solution, nor in her own words “a box-ticking” exercise. Compliance with this new Framework shall allegedly feature in discussions on funding between higher education institutions and the Higher Education Authority. In fact, this process has already begun as the Government announced that it shall donate €400,000 to third-level institutions to help them implement structures to raise awareness on consent. This funding shall be made available over the 2019/2020 academic year. Several interest groups have welcomed this new initiative. Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, spoke about how the Government “can’t treat this as one more little thing” and that they ought to address it as “a kind of epidemic”. NWCI director, Orla O’Connor, said that the Framework’s four key outcomes would be effective. It should also be noted that the latest CSO figures show that the number of sex crimes being reported is at an all time high of 3,182. With that in mind, the Government’s response is well overdue.
By Daniel Forde – Law Editor