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New research suggests 63% of students studying at universities in Northern Ireland who took part in a new survey have had an unwanted sexual experience.

Findings from the study, led by Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast, have been presented today at a conference by researchers who had surveyed more than 1,000 students from both universities. The sample represents around 2% of the overall student population and does not provide detail on where, or when in their lives, the encounters took place. The majority of respondents hope to help other students by sharing their personal experiences.

The Seen and Heard Conference, hosted today at The MAC in Belfast, included an official address by Northern Ireland’s Mental Health Champion, Ulster University Professor Siobhan O’Neill, as well as talks on topical issues by Dr Pádraig Mac Neela of NUI Galway, and Clarissa Humphreys of Durham University. The findings of the ‘Unseen at Uni’ report were presented by researchers Ngozi Anyadike-Danes (UU) and Megan Reynolds (Queen’s), alongside an art exhibition and a short play from UU graduates Emma Stewart and Kat Woods respectively, that both explore the topic of consent.

The study, which highlights a key societal issue, found that only half of those affected told someone about their unwanted sexual experience, with results suggesting those who did report an incident had a greater understanding of sexual consent but may lack the confidence to discuss it in the context of a sexual encounter.

The research led by Ulster University’s Dr Susan Lagdon and Queen’s University Belfast’s Professor Cherie Armour, surveyed students from both Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast between November 2020 and May 2021. Over two thirds of respondents knew the perpetrator and had some sort of pre-established relationship with them.

Researchers sought to understand the impact of unwanted sexual experiences on students’ wellbeing, with findings suggesting those who experienced unwanted sexual behaviour towards them were more likely to suffer with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression than those reporting no experiences.

Building on previous related research and introducing the findings, Dr Susan Lagdon, lead researcher said:

“In recent years the pervasiveness of unwanted sexual experiences among university students in the USA, UK and Republic of Ireland has been well-documented but this is the first time we have region-specific data to benchmark for university students in Northern Ireland. While we recognise the limitations of the sample size, the statistics are stark and it paints a worrying picture, but this isn’t just an issue for higher education institutions, it’s a societal issue that requires urgent action locally.

“Together with my colleague Ngozi Anyadike-Danes, and researchers from QUB, Professor Cherie Armour and Megan Reynolds, we’re recommending a universal and agreed approach to tackling sexual violence, harassment, and misconduct through a zero-tolerance approach to prevention efforts and partnership with our students. Our research findings highlight the need for clear systems for disclosure within higher education which also delivers accessible responses and support which is bolstered through local partnerships, as well as the sharing of practices across universities for the benefit of the student body.”

Professor Odette Hutchinson, Pro Vice Chancellor for Academic Quality and Student Experience at Ulster University, commented:

“All students are entitled to enjoy a safe and positive experience at university, free from sexual misconduct and violence, and as a university community we must do better to protect and support them. One unwanted sexual experience is one too many. The courageous students who responded to this survey have done so in a bid to help others. That generosity is being met by a clear expectation of conduct within the university community: there is zero tolerance for sexual misconduct.

“Ulster University’s commitment to addressing sexual violence and misconduct is strongly reflected in the provision of wraparound support for students including the introduction of a new ‘report and support’ tool accessible to any student who needs it, robust policies and procedures, a refreshed student charter, and a Statement of Protection which defines our commitment to a safe, supportive, and respectful learning and working environment. We are also delivering training to new and returning students to raise awareness of sexual misconduct and violence, and we are running a new campaign to both raise awareness of issues surrounding consent – including that it should always be ongoing, mutual, and freely given, and to signpost students to where they can get help and support should they need it.”

Justice Minister Naomi Long commented:

“Unwanted and non-consensual sexual experiences are not acceptable in any environment or situation. I’m deeply troubled at the clear findings of the research report that such experiences are unfortunately prevalent amongst university students locally. I want victims to feel more empowered and confident to report these despicable crimes to the police and to remain fully engaged in the process of seeking justice. That is why I am fully committed to doing everything I can to protect the community from abusive behaviours and to improve the overall experience of victims in the criminal justice system.”

Professor Cherie Armour from Queen’s University Belfast commented:

“Our research was based on a small sample of the student population in Northern Ireland, and it highlights a very important societal issue. Everyone in our society should be able to enjoy life without their experiences being darkened by unwanted sexual experiences. However, our research shows that this is unfortunately a reality for many. We can also see that these experiences impact on a variety of domains, including psychological wellbeing.

“I am delighted that this research has further opened up the conversation in Northern Ireland and beyond, including within the education sector. It has been wonderful to also see the coming together of many agencies on this topic via the project advisory board and a variety of engagement meetings. Together, we can ensure that we are supporting everyone who is affected by Unwanted Sexual Experiences and that we know how to best support them in their times of need.”

Helen McNeely, Head of Student and Academic Affairs at Queen’s University Belfast said:

“Queen’s University is committed to supporting its students and their safety and wellbeing is our top priority.

“Sexual misconduct and violence are concerning societal issues. The university has a range of measures in place to ensure that those wishing to report or seek support can do so in confidence. Our online Support + Report facility is a well-used resource, where students can reach out to get the help they need.

“The university also delivers support and educates students through its sexual misconduct policy, specialist wellbeing advisor, advocates and consent and bystander ambassadors. The university will continue to work proactively with the students’ union and other partners to raise awareness and facilitate education programmes around consent.”

The full report can be viewed here: