Australian universities told to do more to tackle campus sex assaults


Universities have been told to improve the way they deal with sexual assault on campuses.

A new set of guidelines from Universities Australia (UA) has been released to help campuses strengthen support for sexual assault survivors, but some activists say some of the guidelines do not go far enough.

The recommendations come after the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) Change The Course report last year revealed one in five students from 39 Australian universities was sexually harassed in 2016.

The guidelines suggest, among other things, universities:

  • create standalone policies to address sexual assault and harassment
  • ensure staff with student-facing roles be equipped with skills to respond to disclosures and reports
  • provide academic special consideration
  • develop online reporting tools
  • clearly communicate the university’s reporting process and misconduct procedures, including time frames
  • offer an interpreter for students who prefer to provide information in their native language
  • work closely with colleges and residential halls, where the AHRC found experiences high rates of assault than anywhere else on campus.

UA chief executive Catriona Jackson told SBS News the guidelines, which are non-binding, are a result of a year-long consultation period with organisations from across the university sector.

“This set of guidelines a good reference point for good practice for all universities,” she said.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of safety initiatives happening on university campuses. These guidelines are the first of 10 actions that we as the peak body are committed to undertake."

Universities have been told to improve the way they deal with sexual assault on campuses.
Universities have been told to improve the way they deal with sexual assault on campuses.

The advice forms part of a UA 10-point Action Plan and the "Respect. Now. Always." initiative, and has been welcomed by Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.

Ms Jackson says the guidelines were developed with one goal in mind.

“We’re trying to remove all the barriers to reporting. We know that people, despite the best will in the world, some people don’t come forward and report. It takes an awful lot of courage to do so. But many are frightened and confused," she said.

“We’ve done everything we can in these guidelines, and many universities are already doing the things we’ve recommended in here.”

‘Wasted opportunity’

Nina Funnell, director of activist group End Rape on Campus - which released its own damning report, The Red Zone, into sexual violence in Australian universities last year – told SBS News some of the guidelines are not strong enough.

“I think it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity,” Ms Funnell said.

“All in all, it’s a nice effort, but it’s non-binding. It doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.”

Ms Funnell said she was particularly disappointed with UA’s guideline relating to timelines of disclosures.

Nina Funnell.
Nina Funnell.
End Rape on Campus

"Universities give really strict time frames on how long you have to report a rape, up to 20 or 40 days. The average sexual assault survivor takes at least an average of 11 months to report their crime. Having those really strict timeframes is problematic,” she said.

“This document doesn’t recommend changing those timeframes; it just recommends informing a rape victim of what the timeframes are."

International student abuse an ‘absolute travesty’

Ms Funnell said international students experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country and face several unique barriers to reporting.

The AHRC found, of the 1.6 per cent of students who experienced sexual assault in a university setting in 2015 or 2016, one in five were international students - something Ms Funnel said is an “absolute travesty”.

She said UA’s guidelines do not do enough to look after international students.

“I’m appalled that there are only 10 lines in this document that address CALD students because we know they are a particularly vulnerable group and they require really culturally nuanced and sensitive services," she said.

“At End Rape on Campus, we’ve supported a number of (people) who have reported to police, only to be told, ‘well, look, you’re not going to be here in six months or a year, so there’s no point in us following this up'.”

Ms Funnel said international students often suffer in silence.

“International students are often scared to report they have been a victim of a crime because of fears it could adversely impact their visa,” she said.

“They’ve also often come from countries where their parents have paid then of thousands of dollars to get them here in the first place. The thought of going back home and saying ‘I’ve been raped’, there’s so much shame attached to that.”

Calls for data transparency

The UA guidelines suggest universities consider a way to better capture formal assault disclosures to gather a better understanding of their prevalence on campuses.

Ms Funnell said she would like to see a system in Australia which operates in a similar fashion to The Clery Act in the United States.

Under the act, all colleges and universities involved in federal financial aid programs must annually publish their sexual assault complaint data.

Ms Funnell said since she last saw the Australian data in 2016 - which required the country’s largest ever freedom of information request – it has remained inaccessible.

"What we found was out of 575 complaints officially made to universities on sexual misconduct, only six expulsions had resulted.

“Since that time in 2016, we haven’t been able to access that data again."

SBS News contacted a number of Australian universities earlier this year to find out about the prevalence of and strategies for dealing with sexual violence on campus.

Sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling is available 24-hours a day through 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

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