The findings have been released after nearly 100 British universities were named on a website where students have been anonymously sharing experiences of sexual harassment, abuse, assault and misogyny.
A number of the UK’s top institutions were mentioned more than 50 times on the Everyone’s Invited website – which has highlighted allegations of a “rape culture” in education settings.
Only around a quarter (27%) believe the education they received before university prepared them for the reality of sex and relationships in higher education, according to the Hepi survey of 1,004 students.
More than half (58%) think all students should have to pass an assessment to show that they fully understand sexual consent before starting their degrees, while 51% think relationships and sex education should be made compulsory during the welcome period.
More than one in 10 students said they are not confident on how to communicate consent clearly (11%), on what constitutes sexual assault and violence, and sexual harassment (13%), the poll found.
The survey, from Hepi and YouthSight in August 2020, suggests that more than two in five (43%) undergraduate students arrive on campus as virgins.
More than one in three students (35%) say they have “learned more about sex from pornography than from formal education”.
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.
The Office for Students (OfS) has published its “statement of expectations” – which outlines that training should be made available for all staff and students, which could cover bystander initiatives, consent and handling disclosures, to raise awareness of harassment and sexual misconduct.
It found that two in five students have undertaken sexting, and much of this seems likely to have included sending naked or semi-naked images to another, as 37% of students say they have done this.
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi and 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.”
Mr Hillman added: “More generally, the results show students enter university with a range of different experiences and differences continue 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 their lives.”
Helen Marshall, chief executive of Brook, a charity that works with young people to promote their sexual health, said: “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.”
She added: “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.”
Soma Sara, founder of the Everyone’s Invited website, said: “Everyone’s Invited welcomes the attention that this survey brings to the issue of rape culture in universities and we are encouraged that tangible actions for change are being explored.”