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Written by Anna Hush
In 2017, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released the results of a landmark survey on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities. The results were staggering – the Commission found that one in ten women had experienced sexual assault while studying in the past two years, with roughly a quarter of these assaults occurring in a university setting. Queer, trans, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and students with disabilities were all found to be at particular risk of experiencing sexual violence. With 1.4 million students currently enrolled in higher education in Australia, this translates to thirty students a day, every day, experiencing sexual assault within a university setting.
This is not a new issue by any means. The Red Zone Report, released by national advocacy group End Rape on Campus (EROC) Australia in early 2018, showed that feminists at the University of Sydney have been speaking out about this issue since at least 1977. The stories of survivors have been particularly important in highlighting the devastating impacts of sexual violence, and the sense of institutional betrayal experienced when universities fail to respond with sensitivity and compassion.
Since the release of the AHRC report, universities have taken some steps towards developing stronger policies around sexual violence and improving the support offered to survivors on campus. But why has it taken them so long to act, when there have been consistent demands from students for many decades? This is particularly vexing when we compare Australia’s action on this issue to that of the United States. The first federal complaint against a university for engendering a ‘sexually hostile environment’ was filed in the US in 2011; by 2013, the United States Congress had passed legislation mandating that federally-funded universities undertake evidence-based primary prevention programs for sexual violence.
In contrast, Australia is lagging behind. We are only now seeing Australian universities begin to roll out consent modules for their students, many of which have been criticised by experts as ineffective, and called ‘unrealistic’ and ‘tokenistic’ by students. Australian universities also continue to miss the mark in their public responses to sexual violence; in September this year, the University of New South Wales sent an email to all staff and students in the aftermath of a sexual assault on campus, encouraging them to ‘walk with purpose and confidence’ and ‘maintain awareness of [their] situation’. Students and staff were acrimonious, pointing out the disjunct between the university’s victim-blaming language and their stated ‘zero tolerance’ approach to sexual assault.
Part of the problem in Australia in addressing campus-related sexual violence is the lack of an effective federal body for overseeing the sector’s approach. When universities in the US fail to respond adequately to complaints of sexual violence, students can file complaints with the Office for Civil Rights using the Title IX statute, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-funded university. This has been a critical tool for US survivors and advocates to hold universities to account. In contrast, when students in Australia are dissatisfied with their universities’ responses to sexual violence, there are scarce options for taking their complaints further. Complaints made to universities can take months or even years to resolve, during which time student-survivors are forced to attend classes or share residences with perpetrators. This is in breach of federal standards stipulating that universities must promote a safe environment, have clear and timely structures in place for investigating complaints, and provide support, advocacy, and confidentiality for complainants.
There is one federal body in Australia that may be equivalent to the Title IX mechanism in the United States. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) is responsible for overseeing universities’ compliance with federal standards – so in theory, TEQSA could sanction universities for mishandling sexual violence complaints with fines or even deregistration.
In 2017, End Rape on Campus Australia filed the first complaint with TEQSA related to an instance of sexual violence. The 17-page complaint, supported by 112 pages of documentation, argued that one Australian university was in breach of its own policies by allowing a man convicted of child sex offences and placed on the sex offender register to continue studying, after being made aware of the risk this student posed to others. Over a year later, however, EROC Australia is yet to receive any notification of the findings of the investigation. Sharna Bremner, founder and director of EROC Australia, notes that “TEQSA did not have clear or accessible procedures for filing a complaint – it’s not set up for students to lodge grievances in the same way as Title IX. Filing a complaint with TEQSA typically requires a student to have first utilised their university’s internal complaints mechanism and then taking their grievances to an external body, such as the state ombudsman, before a complaint can be lodged with TEQSA.“
“Pursuing our TEQSA complaint has taken approximately 350 hours over the course of thirteen months, and on a number of occasions, we have had to escalate our questions to senior management in order to receive a response. When TEQSA’s investigations had been completed, we learned that the university that is the subject of the complaint determines what, if any, information we receive about the findings,” Bremner commented.
This points to the need for stronger oversight in how universities respond to sexual violence. Advocacy groups have called for a federal taskforce to coordinate the sector’s response, but as yet this has not been put into place. As it stands, universities have been left to determine their own responses to sexual violence, which have largely been ad hoc and reactive. As I have argued elsewhere, their prevention efforts have been particularly disappointing. Many university administrators have failed to engage with the expertise of academic staff in disciplines like gender and cultural studies, criminology, and social work, which should be some of their key resources in developing prevention and response strategies.
We are now at a point where we have a clear sense of the problem. We also have good evidence about what needs to be done; for example, the good practice guide developed by academic researchers at the UNSW Australian Human Rights Institute. But to genuinely transform cultures of violence in higher education, it will take a coordinated approach from the sector, and accountability mechanisms for when universities fail. When universities have shied away from public scrutiny in this area for so long, transparency and accountability will be the key to creating genuine change.
Anna Hush is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, researching how student activists have responded to sexual violence at Australian universities. Anna is also a Director of End Rape on Campus Australia, a national advocacy group working towards an end to sexual violence in university communities.