On the 9th August 2023, the Minister for Education announced that Patty Kinnersly, CEO of The National Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and Their Children, will join a working group tasked with advising universities on how to create safer campuses for students and staff, with a specific focus on sexual assault and harassment (SASH). Universities will now have to adhere to the advice of this group. It is not yet clear how this adherence will be enforced.
The working group is a part of the government’s response to the University Accord’s Interim Report which was released on 19 July. The interim report recommended that “university governance” should be “improve[d]” in relation to “student and staff safety.”.The final report is scheduled to be published in December 2023.
The announcement of this working group comes after previous recommendations from multiple agencies to establish a similar task force. Six years ago the Australian Human Rights Commission released the Change the Course report which issued nine recommendations to universities and governments. One of these recommendations was to implement an external SASH task force.
In April this year, End Rape on Campus and Fair Agenda called for the government to create an independent group to enforce and police minimum standard policies related to SASH at all Australian universities. The groups claimed universities “can’t be left to mark their own work.”
These recommendations were not met by substantive action until now. Federal member for Goldfield and teal independent, Zoe Daniel expressed her frustration explaining that “reform is long overdue… it’s been six years since the landmark Change The Course investigation found widespread sexual violence on campus and systemic failures to respond to the problem.”
The bodies previously entrusted with the management of student and staff safety have come under scrutiny. Previously the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority was the sole official body to oversee universities’ SASH-related governance. However, their investigations were criticised for being too bureaucratic, taking up to two years to handle cases.
Additionally, their independence was questioned as they have never found a university in breach of any obligations. Furthermore, Universities Australia has not fulfilled its promises relating to SASH on campus. In July 2022, it was revealed that the organisation did not use the tax-payer funded 1.5 million assigned to a campaign to fight sexual violence on university campuses. Some have called for Universities Australia CEO, Caroline Jackson, to retire due to her inability to take effective action to lower rates of SASH on university campuses.
University SASH statistics have not improved since the 2017 Change the Course report. The announcement from the Minister for Education cites that, as of 2021, one in twenty university students have experienced sexual assault and one in six have been sexually harassed. The same study found that these statistics disproportionately represented female, transgender and non-binary students.
At the ANU, the condition is more severe. As of 2021, 26.1% (over a quarter) of students at the ANU had experienced sexual harassment since starting at university, making the ANU the worst university in the country for rates of sexual harassment among students. The ANU is the second worst university in Australia for sexual assault with 12.3% (over one in ten) of students experiencing sexual assault since starting university.
In Australia, 87% of sexual violence is never formally reported and multiple studies have demonstrated that around 10-20% of respondents do not understand what sexual harassment means. For these reasons, the above numbers may be higher than reported.
In comparison to 2017, sexual harassment statistics are slightly better in 2021. In 2017, statistics were closer to representing one in five students compared to the one in six students reported in 2021. However, sexual assault was significantly worse – one in twenty in 2021, compared to 1.6 in every 100 students in 2017.
The statements of government officials indicate some momentum towards complying with experts’ recommendations and taking SASH on campus seriously.
Education Minister Jason Clare stated that “This is not about more research or more surveys… this is about what will make a difference on campuses.” He elaborated, “The working group will provide advice on concrete actions that are aimed squarely at strengthening university governance and keeping students safe.”
The working group is also set to be advised by student advocacy groups like End Rape on Campus, Fair Agenda and STOP.
Whilst this group has answered the calls of students and experts, both have heard hollow promises from the government before and more compliance with recommendations is needed if significant progress is to be made to reduce the amount of SASH experienced by Australian university students.
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 24/7 – Depression, anxiety and suicide prevention
Canberra Rape Crisis Centre 02 6247 2525 7am – 11pm – Crisis support, counselling, advocacy and support programmes
Domestic Violence Crisis Service 02 6280 0900 24/7 – Support to all people affected by domestic/family violence
Lifeline 13 11 14 24/7 – Crisis support and suicide prevention
The Line 1800 MYLINE (1800 695 463) 24/7 – Support for young people in relationships
1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732 24/7 – National sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.
We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and emerging. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.