In the past week, the Federal Government’s education ministers released a Draft Action Plan addressing the problem of gender-based violence across Australian universities.

The plan recognises the “leading role” of higher education institutions in setting examples of informed trauma-based prevention responses, and states the sector “can and must do more” to prevent the high rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment. 

In 2021, the National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) results revealed that one in six students reported they had experienced sexual harassment since attending university. The plan stresses that gender-based violence is deeply rooted in gender-based power inequalities, rigid gender norms and gender-based discrimination, and disproportionately affects women, First Nations students, students living with disability and LGBTQIA+ students. 

Currently released as a draft to allow for further consultation, the plan builds upon principles in the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032. 

The draft proposes a National Code be implemented across higher education institutions and campus residences. The code would set standards required for whole-of-institution approaches for preventing gender-based violence. 

These include rules for incident and reporting management, institutional accountability, student support, education-based prevention activities, and greater oversight of student accommodation providers – recognising that students at residential colleges are at a higher risk of sexual assault and sexual harassment. . 

The plan also suggests the establishment of a new National Student Ombudsman with investigative and dispute resolution powers, to act as a complaint mechanism that allows victim-survivors to elevate their situations above their education provider. 

 This Ombudsman may also oversee other student safety and student-relevant issues, along with HECS administration. The plan emphasises the importance of finding opportunities to ensure providers prioritise the safety and wellbeing of victim-survivors. 

Multilayered accountability is a central tenet of the draft, across governments, providers and communities. It calls for increased transparency and scrutiny through the disclosure of data and annual reporting requirements, along with a commitment to ongoing consultation, coordination and reviews. 

The plan was produced by the Department of Education’s Gender-Based Violence Stakeholder Reference Group, which includes national advocates on sexual violence and representatives from universities, Universities Australia, colleges and other student accommodation providers. 

The draft is under consultation under the 31st of January 2024. 

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