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Sexual harassment and assault rife on campus

Emma Macdonald

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has released a landmark report on the extent of sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities.

The report, “Change the course” found more than half of all university students across Australia’s 39 institutions had been sexually harassed and seven per cent had been sexually assaulted.

Basing its findings on national survey completed by more than 30,000 university students, almost a third of sexual harassment incidents occurred on university grounds or in teaching spaces, while one in five of those who were sexually assaulted said that this occurred at a university or residence social event.

Two-thirds of students who witnessed assaults two took no action.

Both the Australian National University and University of Canberra issued their own survey findings, pledging to stamp out sexual harassment and assault on their respective campuses, and accepting all of the Human Rights Commission recommendations on reform.

At the ANU, at least 116 students were sexually assaulted in 2016, 52 of those on the campus, according to Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt.

A further 841 students reported that they had experienced sexual harassment in 2016, 517 of them on campus.

In 74 per cent of those incidents, the perpetrator was another student and in five per cent of incidents, a lecturer or a tutor.  More than 80 per cent of harassment reports involved men as perpetrators.

At the University of Canberra, of the 460 students who responded to the survey, 33 were sexually assaulted in 2016 – five of those on campus. A further 248 students reported experiencing sexual harassment, 110 of them at university

Both Professor Schmidt and UC Vice-Chancellor Deep Saini said one case of harassment or assault was one too many.

Professor Schmidt said “On behalf of the University I want to start by saying sorry. Sorry to any student, to any staff member, to any member of our alumni community who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault on our campus. One incident is more than we should accept”.

Professor Saini said “I would like to thank the students who took part in this survey. Their personal stories will guide us in stepping up our efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment and assault in our community”.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said the findings were simply unacceptable.

A disturbing number of personal stories were presented within the report including:

Bianca had attended a party at the university bar and decided to go home. Two of her male friends offered to walk her home. Bianca accepted but on the way they said they had to stop off at their college for something. Once inside of the students’ room, they locked the door and took turns raping Bianca.

Iman is a female, undergraduate student studying engineering. Iman’s classmates often suggest that she should have sex with her tutor in return for good grades on a group assignment. She often overhears male students discussing her appearance and her sexuality in class. Another classmate once took photos of her without her knowledge and drew sexual comments and images on them before showing other classmates. She has also experienced groping from classmates, both in class and when studying together or having breaks.

“The unavoidable conclusion of the data we have gathered from more than 30,000 university students across all 39 Australian universities is that incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring at unacceptable rates at Australian universities,” she said.

“Sexual assault and sexual harassment have a devastating physical, emotional and psychological impact on individuals. More than 1800 people made submissions to the Commission, sharing their stories about the way their lives, studies and mental health have been impacted by their experiences.”

She noted that “while anybody can experience sexual assault or sexual harassment, it is clear from the data that women at university experience these behaviours at disproportionately higher rates than men”.

“This adds weight to the body of evidence that highlights disturbing rates of sexual violence against women in Australia.”

The research revealed that most students who were sexually assaulted or sexually harassed at university in 2015 and 2016 did not make a formal report or complaint to their university.

Only six per cent of students surveyed thought their university was currently doing enough to provide clear direction on procedures and support services – only four per cent thought this was the case in relation to sexual assault.”

Commissioner Jenkins said universities needed to do far more to prevent such abuse from occurring and to build a culture that responds appropriately to these incidents by supporting victims and sanctioning perpetrators.

The report includes nine recommendations on areas for action and reform – eight of which are directed at universities and one of which is aimed at university colleges.

They include: Vice-Chancellors should take direct responsibility for the implementation of these recommendations, including decision-making and monitoring and evaluation of actions taken.

Universities should develop a plan for addressing the drivers of sexual assault and sexual harassment and widely disseminate information about university reporting avenues to staff and students.

Universities should commission an independent, expert-led review of existing University policies and services, and conduct an assessment to identify staff members and student representatives most likely to receive disclosures of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

They should ensure that information about individuals is collected and stored confidentially and used for continuous improvement of processes.

Within six months of this report, but as soon as possible, universities should conduct an audit of university counselling services and should engage an independent body to conduct the National university student survey of sexual assault and sexual harassment at three yearly intervals to track progress in reducing the prevalence of these incidents at a sector-wide level.

In addition to considering the implementation of the university recommendations made in this report, residential colleges and university residences should commission an independent, expert-led review of the factors which contribute to sexual assault and sexual harassment in their settings.


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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