Australia

Special report: Universities 'failing' international students on sexual violence

Australian universities are failing to protect international students due to a "one size fits all" approach to sexual consent education, experts and students tell SBS News.

Australian universities aren't doing enough to protect international students from "unacceptable rates" of sexual harassment and assault on campuses, according to experts and students.

At least 26 universities and 16 residential colleges now provide students with an online animated course that explains sexual consent, following a damning report into sexual assault and harassment on campuses.

University statements to SBS News

But experts and students have told SBS News the video doesn't account for the specific needs of international students, with some universities admitting the clip is only available in English. 

The one-hour training video called Consent Matters was implemented after a landmark 2017 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) found sexual assault and harassment is occurring at "unacceptable rates" at Australian universities.

UNSW criminology lecturer Bianca Fileborn, who specialises in sexual violence research, said: “We know that a lot of international students still struggle with English proficiency, and given the gravity of sexual violence, we should make it as easy as possible for students to contact support services."

She told SBS News long-term training programs, preferably in a student's native language, would be more effective.

“At the very least, having things in students’ own language signals to them this is a service that will be inclusive and welcoming of you,” she said. 

“You would think universities of all institutions would understand the need for an evidence-based approach, but we’ve just seen very ad hoc solutions, which is very problematic.”

'Tokenistic' approach slammed

The AHRC report released its findings in response to a string of disturbing incidents on Australian university campuses including 'hazing' rituals - acts intended to cause embarrassment, harassment or ridicule, often associated with group initiations. 

But sexual assault survivor and End Rape on Campus ambassador Nina Funnell said institutions are still not doing enough - particularly for those from overseas. 

“It’s been almost a year since the survey results came out, but advocates have been raising the issue for decades, so the response is really disappointing,” she said.

Ms Funnell is concerned universities are looking for "tokenistic" solutions and not accounting for the diverse experiences of international students.

“A one size fits all solution does not fit the bill,” she said. “We have international students who have received next to no sex education, and some come from countries where if they are raped, they can get charged with adultery," she said. 

She agreed that having only English-language services was problematic: “It’s difficult for a lot of young people to talk about sex in their own language, let alone in a second language, we need to meet students where they are.”

End Rape on Campus Ambassador Nina Funnell
End Rape on Campus ambassador Nina Funnell
End Rape on Campus

Ms Funnell has been instrumental in drawing attention to sexual violence on Australian university campuses and has previously served on the board of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre. She remains concerned universities are still not realising the magnitude of the problem.

We still have universities who think the answer is better lighting on campus.

- Nina Funnell, End Rape on Campus ambassador 

“We still have universities who think the answer to this is better lighting on campus – that really ties into the myth that sexual assault happens because of strangers who jump out of the bushes – they haven’t even wrapped their head around the dynamics of sexual assault,” she said.

“It’s not caused by bad lighting; it’s caused by bad attitudes.”

What are universities going to do? 

The Consent Matters course was developed by online learning provider Epigeum, part of Oxford University Press, which told SBS News the course is intended to be used within a “blended learning context, alongside face-to-face workshops".

Following criticism of the module, SBS News contacted 26 Australian universities and asked whether there were plans in place to introduce specific training for international students if it was not already available.

End Rape on Campus has slammed the module as tokenistic
End Rape on Campus has slammed the Consent Matters module as "tokenistic".
Epigeum

Jordi Austin, director of student support services at Sydney University, told SBS News: “At this stage, the module is only available in English. I’m not aware of any plans to provide the module in other languages. We do try to bring in support, but all our resources on the web are in English.”

"Many of our international students are saying, thank you, I now understand this issue ... a lot of the feedback is suggesting the efforts of the university are well received."

Other universities contacted by SBS News noted they also had no plans to create specialised training for international students.

“We have no plans for second language modules or special training for international students, as there has been no evidence to date that this is needed,” a spokesperson for the University of Melbourne said.

"All students studying at our university need to meet minimum English language standards, so the provision of the resource in another language isn't a priority at this time," a spokesperson from the University of the Sunshine Coast said.

While most institutions have had consent modules in place for some months, Sydney’s University of Technology (UTS) told SBS News “technical problems” have delayed its roll-out, but "by the end of 2018 all undergraduate and postgraduate students, and most staff should have completed the module".

“We need to ensure our IT systems can support this initiative, so we have done multiple rounds of testing, but we’re not far off,” Tracie Conroy from UTS said.

“In a perfect world, we would have the program in different languages but at this stage, there are no plans.”

International students speak out

International students contribute more than $20 billion each year to Australia's economy, making it Australia's third biggest export. China is the top source country, followed by India, Malaysia, Nepal, Brazil, Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand.

But earlier in the year, an SBS News investigation revealed many of these students arrive with a significant lack of basic sex education in comparison with their Australian-born counterparts, a problem which can complicate their study-abroad experience.

This week, international student Forough Ataollahi told SBS News she was confused about her rights when it came to sexual harassment.

“I remember my first year, I was so confused, whether it was normal, I just didn’t know whether such behaviour was common in Australia, so I tried not to show any reaction,” she said.

Forough Ataollahi is CISA's first Women's Officer
Forough Ataollahi is CISA's first women's officer
CSU

“I can see universities trying to give international students a good experience but I still believe international students are invisible in this conversation around sexual violence.”

Ms Ataollahi, who arrived in Australia three years ago from Iran, said considering how reliant universities are on international students’ financial contribution, they should do more to protect them.

She is now the first Women’s Officer of the Council of International Students Australia (CISA), a position she created in the hope other international students would not experience the same confusion she did.

International students are invisible in this conversation around sexual violence.

- Forough Ataollahi, international student 

“We have a diverse student community, and they have different experiences and ways of thinking about sexual consent. Some are coming from countries where there is no translation of consent, where harassment is not a crime,” she said.

“Their own justification can be a problem, some may blame themselves and think they deserved it, or they might assume behaviour which makes them uncomfortable is just part of society.”

Why students need to feel safe

Karen Willis, chief officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, said while universities need to step up their efforts generally, there is a need for specific options for vulnerable student groups to make them feel safe.

“For international students, they’ve got racism and gender inequity kicking in to increase vulnerability. The perception from offenders is that someone from overseas is less likely to make a complaint,” Ms Willis said.

“The problem with a generic approach is it says, 'we’re the experts and you must do it' – processes should be collaborative between the educators and the people doing it.”

Ms Willis has worked with the service for more than 16 years, and as the number of international students in Australia increases, she said she has noticed many international students calling the service with their questions.

“We often get anonymous calls from them, they often fear that if they say anything they will get kicked out of the country, and secondly, their family will be told, which can be a source of great shame. They don’t know their rights, they fear it will have implications on their visa,” she said.

They often fear that if they say anything they will get kicked out of the country.

- Karen Willis, Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia

“There’s no question universities could be doing more, and all of us could be doing more. “

More resources needed

Dr Fileborn said she understands the challenging circumstances universities are in, but a more systematic approach is needed to protect all students.

“It does take a lot of time and resources to do it properly, and I understand universities are often operating in a tightly resourced environment,” she said.

“[But] universities must know who their students are, what their needs are, and make sure its tailored and appropriate for all groups.”

“We need face-to-face training, delivered by experts.”

Some universities do offer face-to-face training for select student groups, but offering them on a wide scale poses challenges for institutions, according to Sydney University's Ms Austin.

“The challenge for our university is a challenge of scale – it’s not possible for us to run in-person training for 22,000 commencing students in a way that would help us to start the conversation, but we’re alert to take on board any concerns,” she said.

Ms Ataollahi hopes to use her position within CISA to advocate for compulsory face-to-face training for all international students, within the first few weeks of their arrival, to help them overcome these misconceptions about sexual violence.

“If they can get all this information about consent early, they will realise how to protect themselves and what their rights are.”

“It’s challenging being an international student, but it has its own beauty as well, so we just need more open discussion.”

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

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