A new Department of Education draft action plan to address gender-based violence in higher education has been welcomed by the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney.
The plan, released for further consultation and detailed design work, centres the voices and needs of student survivors. It outlines seven key actions, including a new National Student Ombudsman aimed at ensuring students have access to an effective, trauma-informed complaints mechanism, and annual reporting by higher education providers through the Commonwealth Minister of Education to Parliament. A commitment to enhance the oversight, standards and accountability of student accommodation providers regarding their gender-based violence prevention and response has also been welcomed.
If implemented as a full package of measures, as intended, the Institute believes the plan will be a game-changer for Australia’s university sector, dramatically increasing the support for student survivors and enhancing institutional accountability and transparency.
Emeritus Professor Andrea Durbach, lead author of the Institute’s 2017 On Safe Ground: A Good Practice Guide for Australian Universities report, welcomed the draft action plan.
“When we concluded our three-year research project with the publication of On Safe Ground in 2017, our recommendations called for university responses that addressed systemic failures, enhanced complaint policies and procedures and student support services, and implemented long-term prevention strategies” she said.
“The draft action plan is an encouraging endorsement of the findings and recommendations of this research and the parallel work undertaken by our partners, The Hunting Ground Australia Project, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the National Union of Students and community advocates.”
Australian Human Rights Institute Research Fellow Dr Allison Henry, author of Regulatory responses to sexual assault and sexual harassment in Australian university settings, said the draft action plan was long overdue.
“For too long, responding to campus-based sexual violence has been left to self-regulating universities and residential colleges. That approach has demonstrably failed,” she said.
“This draft action plan is an important signal that Australian governments have serious expectations around universities and residential colleges strengthening their responses to gender-based violence, and a commitment to provider accountability if they fail to meet those expectations.”
Dr Henry, who was part of the Department of Education's Gender-based Violence Stakeholder Reference Group which advised on the development of draft action plan, particularly welcomed the proposed introduction of a new National Higher Education Code to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence, detailing expectations around critical incident management, provision of support to students and whole-of-institution data collection and transparent reporting.
“The new National Higher Education Code, specifically addressing gender-based violence, is a critical element in this action plan,” she said.
“By setting out detailed rules and requirements of universities and residential colleges, the new code will help to address the shortcomings of the Threshold Standards and encourage more consistent approaches across universities and residential colleges.”
Dr Henry also welcomed the establishment of a new expert unit in the department to drive implementation of the code.
“The national higher education regulator, TEQSA, has proven itself ill-equipped to lead this work and no longer has the confidence of students or survivor advocates,” she said.
The Australian Human Rights Institute has been at the forefront of efforts to address sexual violence in Australian universities.
In 2015, the Institute (then the Australian Human Rights Centre) was commissioned by The Caledonia Foundation to lead a major research project titled, Strengthening Australian University Responses to Sexual Assault and Harassment Project. The Centre collaborated with the Australian Human Rights Commission to ascertain the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities, resulting in the Commission’s landmark Change the Course report in August 2017.
The Centre then drew on the survey data and international comparative research for its On Safe Ground report, also released in August 2017.
The Institute has supported the research of several doctoral candidates in this area and undertaken further research and advocacy to create sustainable and long-term changes to address campus-based sexual violence on campus.