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Assault and Harassment Across Most Areas of Australian University Life – Report

1 August 2017 at 4:22 pm
Lina Caneva
A new report by the Australian Human Rights Commission has revealed that more than half of university students across the country were sexually harassed last year.

Lina Caneva | 1 August 2017 at 4:22 pm


Assault and Harassment Across Most Areas of Australian University Life – Report
1 August 2017 at 4:22 pm

A new report by the Australian Human Rights Commission has revealed that more than half of university students across the country were sexually harassed last year.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (HRC) landmark report released on Tuesday revealed the nature and extent of sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities.

The data in the Change the course report was based on a national survey completed by more than 30,000 university students across all 39 Australian universities. All of these universities, through peak body Universities Australia, committed to the work.

“The unavoidable conclusion of the data we have gathered… is that incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring at unacceptable rates at Australian universities,” HRC Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins 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.”

The report showed that sexual assault and sexual harassment were occurring to varying degrees across most areas of university life.

“Almost a third of sexual harassment reported in the survey 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,” Jenkins said.

“We found that colleges are a particular area of concern, particularly for women who were four times as likely as men to have been sexually assaulted in this setting.”

Across all university settings, the commission found that women were three times as likely as men to be sexually assaulted in 2015 or 2016 and almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016.

“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,” Jenkins said.

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

Jenkins said that the report also included important findings on high rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse students.

The commission’s 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 6 per cent of students surveyed thought their university was currently doing enough to provide clear direction on procedures and support services,” she said.

“Only 4 per cent  thought this was the case in relation to sexual assault.”

Jenkins also stressed the importance of ensuring that survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment were given the support they needed.

“In particular the contribution of students and advocates – such as the Hunting Ground Australia Project – whose work provided the platform for the commission undertaking the survey,” she said.

“The evidence is clear that universities need to do 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 included nine recommendations on areas for action and reform – eight of which are directed at universities and one of which is aimed at university colleges.

Advocacy group, Our Watch Acting CEO Patty Kinnersly said: “The Change the course report shows significant numbers of university students have experienced sexual harassment, sexual coercion, and other forms of violence.

“Overwhelmingly it is female students that experience this,” Kinnersly said.

“With over 1.3 million students and 100,000 employees across 39 universities, the Australian university sector plays a significant role in shaping our cultural and social norms, and the future direction of our community.

“It is, therefore, excellent to see the commission recommending that universities address the drivers of sexual assault and harassment, to change the course and build a community where these statistics do not continue, through evidence based primary prevention.”

 Our Watch said universities had a clear duty of care towards staff and students, with legal and ethical obligations regarding their safety and wellbeing.

“Universities, as educational institutions, workplaces and community hubs, are well placed to help prevent violence against women through challenging the attitudes, behaviours and inequality that drives it,” Kinnersly said.

In response to the report, Universities Australia committed to a prevention initiative releasing a ten point plan.

The ten initiatives are:

  • the development of an evidence-based respectful relationships program for university students;
  • new specialist training developed by the Australian Psychological Society to extend the skills of university counsellors to support victims and survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment;
  • a 24/7 national interim support line offering specialist support for students, operated by Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, to supplement university services;
  • broader availability of first-responder training for university staff;
  • new training for university staff and leaders about prevention and responses to sexual harassment and sexual assault;
  • working with Universities Colleges Australia to provide access to firstresponder training for residential colleges and halls of residence, and to take their own action to support students in a compassionate and timely way;
  • the development of best-practice guidelines to support universities to respond to reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment;
  • new principles on postgraduate student-staff interaction
  • a commitment to continue the Respect. Now. Always. awareness campaign; and
  • undertaking a follow-up student survey to assess progress and inform ongoing action.

Deakin University said the national report on student sexual assault and sexual harassment was a “line in the sand” moment for the nation.

Deakin Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander AO said that as part of the world-first Respect. Now. Always. initiative, all of Australia’s universities, representing more than one million students and over 100,000 staff asked the AHRC to conduct the landmark national survey and provide robust data to guide further improvement in policies and services.

Professor den Hollander said sexual assault and sexual harassment was a significant issue for the wider community.

“The AHRC’s national report, and Deakin’s own data, confirm that we must continue to confront the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment at universities, and also beyond our campuses into the communities we serve,” den Hollander said.

“Just one instance of violent and intrusive behaviour is one too many and we affirm our commitment to prevention, to compassionately supporting victims and survivors, and to ensuring our campuses continue to be safe places for all.

“I deplore the national statistic that on average at least one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in this country. We will continue to work with and train our staff and students to build a strong culture of safety, mutual respect and inclusion.

“I thank each and every one of the 649 Deakin students who completed this important survey – I know it was not easy – but you have helped us to draw a line in the sand, and we now know where to focus our energy.

“We have a moment in time to now do something about this issue. We have improved our information on our websites regarding our code of conduct and values, we have also made sure that access to support and information is clearer and easier to access.”

Professor den Hollander said the university had moved to strengthen its existing policies and procedures to ensure that when incidents happen, victim-centred support is provided to staff and students, regardless of where it occurred.

“Staff and students are being trained to improve knowledge and better equip trusted members of the Deakin community to appropriately handle disclosures,” den Hollander said.

“I urge those people to come forward and talk to us, we will listen. The AHRC report and our data has helped us learn and improve our specialist support for victims and survivors.

“The AHRC report clearly shows that we need to increase student awareness about access to support services and where to go to report incidents. We have already made this information more prominent online and on-campus, and we will work with our students to continue to improve communication and understanding.”

The federal shadow minister for universities, Terri Butler said the report was “a truly disturbing finding that demands urgent action”.

She said it was unacceptable that so many sexual assaults on university campuses go unreported to universities.

“It doesn’t matter where sexual assault happens, it is always a crime – it should always be taken seriously as a crime. There must be strong measures in place to prevent it, and support services available to victims,” Butler said.

“Some universities have taken steps to address these significant issues. But it is clear there is still much work to do, including the systematic review of university policies recommended by the Human Rights Commission.”

Click here to view the report.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit In an emergency, call 000”

To access guides for reporting about violence against women and their children, visit:


Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.


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