Every woman knows a woman who’s been sexually assaulted at university, or she’s experienced it herself: the horror, the shame, the isolation and the frustration at the lack of recourse that neither universities nor residential colleges will step up and take responsibility for. The distressing level of sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities has been well established by two comprehensive national student safety surveys. The 2021 survey results show the magnitude of the problem. One in 20 students reported being sexually assaulted since starting university. This equates to 14,300 sexual assaults per year or 275 sexual assaults each week, every week. The numbers are shocking. The lack of action from the university sector is also shocking.
When the Change the Course report was released in 2017, it recommended universities be transparent about sexual harm on campus. The 39 universities agreed to the recommendation, but fewer than a third of them are clearly reporting sexual violence. Some aren’t reporting results in an easily accessible way, while others aren’t reporting them at all. Universities must be held accountable for the sexual violence that occurs on their campuses and in residential colleges. The lack of leadership, duty of care and respect from the sector has been shameful.
According to the founder and director of End Rape on Campus Australia, Sharna Bremner, right now student-survivors who have been raped by other students or staff can’t even get their universities to make arrangements so they don’t have to sit their exams in the same room as their rapist. Renee Carr, from Fair Agenda, says some institutions even fail to ensure known perpetrators of sexual violence aren’t hired into positions of access and influence. There are so many stories such as the young international student who was harassed repeatedly by a staff member. He sent unwanted texts that commented on her appearance. The woman raised the issue with her head of department and was told to just block the accused’s phone number and not attend seminars or social events. There was the residential college with its annual ‘feral women’s night’, where first-year residents are force-fed alcohol, told to remove their tops and serve drinks to older male residents while being subjected to derogatory comments and chants. This is grossly unacceptable behaviour that’s allowed to continue because universities won’t act. If a student-survivor knows how to access the university’s complaints process and has the time and the strength to file a report of their sexual assault, they often find that the complaints process itself is harmful to their educational progress and their overall wellbeing.
The survey results confirmed the inadequacy of current university complaint systems. Fewer than half of current students know about their university’s policies on sexual assault and sexual harassment or where to seek support or assistance at their uni. Only 5.6 per cent of students who experienced an incident of sexual assault reported it to the university. Just 29.7 per cent of those students who reported an incident of sexual assault to their university were satisfied with the reporting process. This is why I joined the courageous women from the STOP campaign and End Rape on Campus last week and called for an independent task force to monitor the sector’s progress and impose penalties on those institutions that continue to ignore their responsibilities. Fair Agenda says, ‘An independent oversight and accountability mechanism such as an expert led task force will deliver oversight that’s independent of universities and residences and led by experts in sexual violence prevention and response; accountability when basic standards are not met; transparency around which institutions are providing appropriate and effective responses and prevention initiatives; and avenues for concerns to be raised by students, survivors and other stakeholders. After meeting the student-survivors last week, I raised the issue of sexual violence in universities in a face-toface meeting with the Minister for Education. To his credit, he immediately met with the STOP campaign that day. The following day, he announced a working group through the Universities Accord process, with an expert on the prevention of and response to sexual assault and harassment.
I welcome the appointment of Patty Kinnersly as the expert advisor. Having worked in the violence prevention space for many years with Our Watch, Ms Kinnersly will bring a whole-of-institution approach to stopping gender based violence on campus. Supporting victims-survivors is critical, but it should not be the sole focus. It requires multiple reinforcing actions across all areas of the university—culture, policies and structures—from the vice-chancellor down. Any meaningful change will require genuine and committed leadership from the vice-chancellors. This is the moment for universities to get back on track after cherrypicking recommendations from previous reports. Speaking of reports, a new national survey is a must. One of the recommendations from the Change the course report was that universities should engage an independent body to conduct the survey every three years. This is important because up-to-date data makes for better decision-making and effective action. I still favour an independent task force, but an expert on the working group that reports directly to the minister is a good start.
We must get this right. There is too much at stake. Students-survivors tell End Rape on Campus that their rape was bad, but the response from their university was worse. This cannot be allowed to continue. Universities should be a place of joy and learning, not fear and distress.