EROC and Fair Agenda - “Universities Can’t be Left to Mark their Own Work” on Sexual Violence

CW: Sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) and institutional betrayal

End Rape on Campus (EROC) and Fair Agenda, two of Australia’s leading bodies on sexual assault and harassment (SASH), have called on the Labor government to support creating an independent taskforce to monitor and enforce minimum standard policies on SASH across Universities.

In a submission to the Universities Accord panel, the two organisations slammed current standards of prevention, investigation and punishment of SASH across the Australian tertiary sector, finding flaws in how the sector deals with each stage. The system, they allege, actively causes harm, and tells perpetrators that “…their university will take more severe action against them if they cheat on an exam than if they harm…” a peer.

The submission goes on to argue that universities have shown their unwillingness to move further on the issue. From the Australian Human Rights Commission report in 2017 to the National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) last year, there has been little change in the rate of sexual assault on campus. The 2017 report found that 215 sexual assaults occurred in a university setting each week in Australia.

The groups argue that universities fail “…students at every point of responsibility.” They also point to a lack of progress and a hypocrisy amongst universities of making commitments with hollow actions on:

  • Evidence-based interventions
  • Not hiring tutors and other staff with a history of SASH
  • Providing trauma-informed counselling
  • Providing timely responses to urgent student questions
  • Providing basic safety measures such as ensuring that survivors are not in class with their perpetrators
  • Providing students with minor academic adjustments to prevent drop-outs
  • Taking steps to prevent perpetrators from committing further harm at university.

Both EROC and Fair Agenda now want an independent body to oversee universities’ progress on, and enforcement of, measures around sexual violence. They argue that universities “can’t be left to mark their own work” any longer.

The NSSS found that ANU had the second-highest rate of SASH in Australia, and the highest of the Group of Eight Universities. 26% of ANU students surveyed had experienced SASH, and over half knew all their perpetrators. 48% of survivors did not seek help, nor report it, because they thought others would not think it serious enough.

ANU saw an increase in reporting of sexual violence last year, likely a reflection of recent changes to the reporting and disclosure system. Out of 31 reports made, twenty-one of those found students “…to have engaged in misconduct.”

Support for survivors of sexual assault is another key issue. EROC argues that “the majority of student survivors state that they just want to be able to undertake their studies safely.” However, both the NSSS and the submission show that many universities do not provide adequate support services, leaving survivors on the cusp of dropping out, and often financially strained. They point to the need for interim support during the reporting stage, and extra considerations taken in students’ classes.

Many students find that the experience comes to dominate their whole academic experience, as they must disclose SASH to lecturers and tutors when asking for special considerations. At ANU, students with an EAP do not have to disclose the reason for it, but they will have to talk to student services to renew it.

Additionally, the majority of SASH occurs in student residences, meaning students often feel unsafe in their own homes. EROC proposes more assistance for students seeking to move out of the residence where SASH may have occurred, and clear systems of special considerations for survivors of SASH.

Sharma Bremmer, founder of EROC Australia, described many students’ experiences as having to jump through hoops just to stay in university. Meanwhile, perpetrators often receive little to no punishment, and Bremmer alleges that some universities go on to hire perpetrators that students have reported.

Students at the ANU can contact the Student Safety and Wellbeing Team for assistance in disclosing and reporting SASH, and in receiving academic support. The Registrar’s office is responsible for investigating and punishing instances of SASH.

Exasperated with a lack of progress from universities, EROC and Fair Agenda now want a national body to oversee universities. At the moment, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority (TEQSA) oversees universities’ responses to sexual violence. However, the submission details a lack of oversight. TEQSA has never found a university to be in violation of its obligations, despite widespread public dissatisfaction with the sector. EROC also reports that TEQSA’s investigations take, on average, 2 years, and often involve revealing the complainant’s identity to university administration.

They envision this body as an “independent, expert-led accountability and oversight mechanism…with a mandate to ensure compliance with minimum standards… and deliver enforcement where basic standards are met.” The organisations do not go into much detail, but view the Accords as a place to create lasting change, especially as the government has invited stakeholders to consider what the tertiary sector should look like decades from now.

The government will release a draft of the Accords halfway through this year, and then a final version at the end of the year. Stakeholders from the National Union of Students, Universities Australia and experts are all involved. Whether the government or universities pick up on EROC and Fair Agenda’s suggestion remains to be seen.

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