Research involving thousands of third-level students suggests many have experienced serious sexual violence and harassment.

The findings are made in a study of the sexual experiences of those attending colleges and universities here.

Tens of thousands of students were invited to participate in the research, across ten Institutes of Technology and four universities, affiliated to the Union of Students in Ireland.

Just over 4% completed the survey in full. The survey findings are based on their responses.

Of those 6,036 students, almost 30% of females reported non-consensual penetration as a result of force, incapacitation or threat of force.

Some 10% of males and 28% of non-binary students had the same experience.

Many said they had not reported the incidents before being surveyed, with a significant number saying they did not think it was serious enough to merit this.

The research was carried out by NUI Galway's Active Consent Programme, in collaboration with the Union of Students in Ireland, between February and April.

The survey points to widespread sexual harassment in the colleges and universities covered, with half of first-year students experiencing sexual harassment.

The incidence rose to 62% for second years, while two thirds of third-year undergraduates said they had experienced sexual harassment.

The report’s authors say harassment includes sexist language or actions; unwanted efforts to establish a sexual relationship; and harassment via electronic communication.

Sexual violence refers to non-consensual behaviour, including unwanted touching, attempted or completed penetration.

The report recommends that strategies and supports to prevent sexual violence and harassment are needed in all third-level institutions.

They say that consent should be emphasised as an integral part of college life and have called for universal access to sex harassment prevention programmes.

The tone of such programmes is also important. As well as emphasising responsibility, people need to be supported to make positive choices, for themselves and others.

The Department of Education is making €400,000 available to colleges this year, to develop consent programmes for students.

President of the USI, Lorna Fitzpatrick, said some of the findings in the survey are disturbing and show that more needs to be done in the area of consent.

She added that there is room for each institution to develop individual action plans to raise awareness on their own campuses.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, she said there is a need to try to address the gap in knowledge on how to report sexual harassment or violence and what happens when a student reports such an incident to their institution.

Ms Fitzpatrick said there has been a significant increase in reports since a similar study was undertaken in 2013, which highlights an increased awareness.

Although this was a third-level study, she imagined it is a fair representation of what is happening across society, she added.

RTÉ Brainstorm: Why are so many Irish students not reporting sexual assaults?

USI Vice President for Welfare Róisín O'Donovan said the survey's findings are sad and shocking but she is not too surprised at them.

One of the main gaps uncovered by the survey, Ms O'Donovan added, is that many students do not feel incidents are important enough to be reported and more information on this matter needs to be conveyed to students.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sarah McInerney, Ms O'Donovan said that every college is different and local strategies need to be adapted.

Dr Padraig MacNeela, lead of the NUI Galway Active Consent Programme, said the study is the first campus climate survey undertaken in Ireland.

We need to change the culture and involve everybody in this change, he added.

Dr MacNeela said the Department of Education released a comprehensive consent framework last year, which was an important step forward.

However, he added, few of the students get a written definition of what consent is.