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Simon Harris warns universities over sexual harassment cases as he speaks of increased funding

Harris said Irish institutions needed to do more to tackle sexual harassment.

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris
Higher Education Minister Simon Harris
Image: Brian Lawless via PA Images

HIGHER EDUCATION MINISTER Simon Harris has said there cannot be a repeat of a sexual harassment case like academic Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain’s if universities are to receive increased funding.

Harris said Irish institutions needed to do more to tackle sexual harassment.

Earlier this year, lecturer and broadcaster Dr Ni Shuilleabhain detailed her experience of enduring two years of repeated sexual harassment by a former colleague at UCD.

Harris said: “If I, as the current minister on behalf of the people of this country, am going to invest more in higher education I don’t ever want to ever want to, ever, ever, ever, hear a story like Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain’s again in an Irish institution.

“We are not where we need to be in terms of tackling sexual harassment, gender-based violence, promoting consent.

“If we are to invest more I need universities to understand [that]. In fairness, as I think they are.”

Dr Ni Shuilleabhain said in September she was speaking publicly about the harassment because she did not want any other student or staff member to endure the same ordeal and that she wanted to begin a conversation that helps address the issue on university campuses across Ireland.

Last month, Harris announced that higher education institutions would be required to report cases of sexual harassment and bullying of staff and students annually as part of a “zero-tolerance” initiative to creating safe third level colleges.

Harris has also tasked universities and colleges with creating action plans aimed at tackling sexual violence and harassment within their institutions.

The minister said that the governance of universities needed to be improved: “Universities are autonomous. I believe and regard their autonomy for really good educational reasons and research reasons but autonomy in terms of education can never be used as a fig leaf to cover up the importance of accountability, transparency.”

He added that when he looked at the leadership of universities he wanted to be able to see Irish society look back at him.

Higher education institutions have repeatedly called on the Government to increase funding in recent years.

Last May, a group of 1,600 scientists wrote a letter to the Government warning that a crisis in Irish research had deepened due to chronic underinvestment and that it “risked becoming fatal if not addressed”.

Earlier this month, the Irish Universities Association warned it could be facing a deficit of up to €200 million due to the ongoing pandemic in the event of a worst-case scenario.

Mr Harris said: “It is absolutely fair to have the funding conversation and it needs to be heard and it needs to be settled. It needs to be addressed and I have a big body of work to do, as does Government, in that regard but in return for that, there will also have to be serious conversations around governance, diversity, inclusion, and flexibility in terms of how people are.

“I don’t say that in a confrontational way because I think our institutions are up for that, I think they get it, I think they understand that that is the way of the future. But one does need to go with the other.”

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Harris maintained that “contrary to popular opinion” funding in higher education had increased.

Next year he said €1.8 billion would be spent on higher education, up from €1.5 billion in 2016.

When the spend on Susi grants are included he said that figure would rise to more than €2 billion.

Successive governments have failed to make a decision on a future funding model for third-level institutions.

The 2016 Cassells report on Higher Education concluded that an additional one billion euro in annual funding was needed by 2030 to improve higher education institutions in Ireland.

An economic evaluation of the various funding options as outlined in the Cassells report is due to be completed in the first quarter of next year.

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