New research conducted for The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) shows that over half of young people (58%) believe it should be compulsory for students to pass sexual consent test before starting university.
In our poll of over 1,000 full-time undergraduate students, we found that the majority of respondents think it should be compulsory to pass an assessment showing that they fully understand sexual consent before starting their degrees.
The results come at what is hoped to be a turning point in higher education, as earlier this month England’s higher education regulator called on universities and colleges to take urgent action and do more to tackle sexual misconduct and harassment affecting students.
- A small minority of students think their prior education prepared them for the reality of sex and relationships in higher education (6% of respondents ‘strongly agree’ and a further 21% ‘slightly agree’)
- The majority of students think it should be compulsory to pass a sexual consent assessment before entering higher education (26% ‘strongly agree’ and 32% ‘slightly agree’)
- Most students (59%) are ‘very confident’ about ‘what constitutes sexual consent’ but only half as many (30%) are ‘very confident’ about how to navigate sexual consent after alcohol has been consumed
- Most students (58%) regard making friends as more important than finding sexual partners and just one-in-ten students (10%) expected to have sex during freshers’ week while a similar proportion (9%) did so
- Two-thirds of students say they know how to challenge inappropriate sexual behaviour (with 23% saying they feel ‘very confident’ in doing so and 43% ‘fairly confident’)
- Around half of students (48%) say it was ‘easy’ to maintain friendships during lockdown and a similar proportion (52%) say their universities provided ‘good messaging about the importance of wellbeing’
Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI and the author of the report, said: "It is vital to build a better understanding of how students live today, including during the COVID disruption, if they are to have the right support. Our robust polling provides the most comprehensive, accurate and useful summary of the sex lives and relationships of students in the UK that has been published for many years. By telling students about the experiences of their peers, we hope the results will make it easier for them to make informed decisions about their own lives.
"The poll confirms we need to alter the common understanding of what it is like to be in higher education today. In the main, students are not irresponsible nor do they lack resilience, but they sometimes feel unprepared for life as an undergraduate. With the right information to hand, they are generally keen to support one another during challenging times.
"One particularly striking finding is the high proportion of female students whose higher education has been affected by their periods. This supplements what we already know about girls in school and the new data show higher education institutions need to give female health matters further consideration across teaching, learning and assessment.
"More generally, the results show students enter university with a range of different experiences and such differences persist throughout their time in higher education. Much of our polling paints a positive picture but some elements of the results suggest – if the resources are available – that schools, universities and policymakers could all do more to help students navigate what is a key transition point in life.’
Helen Marshall, the Chief Executive of Brook, a charity that specialises in working with young people to promote their sexual health, said: "This research provides an extremely valuable insight into students’ understanding of sex and relationships. While some of the findings are encouraging, much more still needs to be done to support students at university, many of whom will be away from home for the first time. Young people are sadly entering higher education feeling unprepared for the reality of sex and relationships, and there is clear demand from students themselves for greater education around consent.
"Although mandatory relationships and sex education has recently been introduced in schools, Brook’s experience shows that students would hugely benefit from further support and learning around these issues. Brook already delivers consent training in several universities and we want to encourage more institutions to improve their support services, empowering students to confidently manage their own sexual health, relationships and wellbeing."
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