One in three university students will be sexually assaulted while they are studying, new research reveals.

Preliminary data from the largest New Zealand study into sexual assaults and harassment at university shows a third of students will endure some form of sexual assault during their time at university - a rate higher than the United States, Stuff reports.

Data from the US suggests one in five female university students there are sexually assaulted.

Students were most likely to be on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances and behaviour from fellow students, the New Zealand prevalence study showed, with some saying there was a culture of sexual harassment at university.

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According to the Stuff report, young men were the most likely to be perpetrators and young women their victims, with most assaults taking place while the victim was drunk, asleep or otherwise incapacitated.

The survey was sent out to 2700 students at a New Zealand university, asking them if they had experienced a non-consensual sexual experience.

More than a third (36 per cent) of respondents said they had experienced some form of sexual assault. Broken down, that equated to 41 per cent of women and 22 per cent of the men who responded to the survey.

Reported sexual assault included groping, being made to remove clothes, perform oral sex, or forced digital, anal or vaginal penetration, Stuff said.

The research showed 88 per cent of perpetrators were men and 17 per cent were women. While two-thirds of respondents said they were assaulted by a student or students who were studying at the same university.

PhD student Kayla Stewart, from Otago University, who carried out the research, told Stuff it showed sexual assault was a widespread issue and one that universities have an obligation to tackle.

"There needs to be acknowledgement that this is an issue, because for too long it's been hidden or universities have failed to acknowledge it," she's reported as saying.

"I really want to bring attention to what perpetrators are doing, and shift the focus to their actions. The most commonly used tactic is altered consciousness, through alcohol or drugs or sleep. Perpetrators sexually assaulted one in four people this way, taking advantage when they were drunk or out of it."

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It was both a community problem and a societal issue, she said.

Universities New Zealand told Stuff it had established a working group into sexual violence, which involved representatives for all universities and two students.

The research comes just two months after the University of Otago's prestigious Knox College was mired in sexual assault allegations, after former students came forward alleging sexual assaults and rap went under the radar at the 110-year-old hall of residence.