Image: Herald Sun

The Human Rights Commission has been forced to defend their decision to withhold individual universities’ survey results from a nation-wide survey into sexual assault among university students, which was launched to determine the prevalence of the issue in Australian universities.

The survey, a collaboration between Universities Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission, saw a representative sample of students from all 39 Australian universities share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment. The survey asks respondents to explain in detail their experiences of sexual harassment or assault, signify whether they reported any incidents and the response they received upon doing so, and finally any recommendations or thoughts they may wish to share on the matter.

While the survey was well received at its conception, the Human Rights Commission’s decision to withhold the individual results of the universities has been widely criticised. Rather than release the results of each university, the Commission elected to allow universities to decide whether they would publish their own results; a decision that has led many to worry that the worst performing universities would simply elect not to.

Such concern was expressed by the NUS Women’s Officer Abby Stapleton, who feared that it would create a situation where institutions with a lower reported incidence of sexual assault will disclose their survey results while those with the worst record do not.

The Human Rights Commission’s decision is made more controversial by the fact that many of the leaders of the universities involved have stated that releasing the individualised data would be the best way to mobilise changes within universities.

The controversy was eased however with the announcement that all of the universities involved have elected to simultaneously release their individual results, bringing into question why the Commission ever chose to withhold them in the first place.

In a statement, Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson explained that the survey was ‘led by vice-chancellors, and so it should come as no surprise that all universities will release their institutional data’.

The Human Right’s Commission affirmed their ‘unwavering commitment’ to prevent sexual assault and harassment in a statement which also welcomed the universities’ decision to release their individual results.

‘The Commission takes this commitment in good faith as an indication of their commitment to drive change within their universities.’

The announcement that all 39 universities would releases their results in conjunction with the release of the AHRC’s report was hailed as a victory for transparency and accountability among universities.

However, further controversy arose when it was revealed that the survey would not result in any formal recommendations, only the identification of ‘areas for action and reform’. As a result, many of the respondents felt that they were led to relive traumatic experiences for a survey that would not lead to any changes.

This announcement was met with an immediate response from Nina Funnel, a journalist and participant in the survey.

In a comment piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Funnel calls the survey ‘one of the most egregious examples of exploiting survivors for the purposes of research in Australian history’. She further comments that rape victims were lured into reliving distressing events under the false pretence of recommendation and progress.

In response to criticism, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins quickly recanted the previous decision against making formal recommendations. Jenkins has now clarified that the commission’s report, due mid-2017, will make a series of recommendations for action and reform.

The ANU’s response to the survey includes a press release announcing the survey and the universities co-operation and support. Along with the other 38 Australian universities, the ANU has also committed to releasing its individual results from the survey when the AHRC’s report is released later this year.

In another statement on the matter, Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt personally supported the survey, and encouraged students to respond.

‘On behalf of the university I want to make it clear sexual assault and sexual harassment are not acceptable,’ Professor Schmidt said.

‘I encourage anyone who is not selected to participate in the survey to make a submission. The survey will provide us with data to help improve our policies, procedures and support services.’

The time for survey responses has since closed and the HRC are in the process of collating the evidence for a report that, along with the individual results of each university, will be released later this year.

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