Explainer: What is being done to address campus sexual violence at Australian universities?

Allison Henry

Dr Allison Henry is a Research Fellow and Associate with the Australian Human Rights Institute. She completed her PhD on 'Regulatory responses to sexual assault and sexual harassment in Australian university settings’ with the Institute in 2023. Allison has been the managing editor of the Australian Journal of Human Rights since August 2020.

How big a problem is campus sexual violence?

Survivors, student leaders, sexual violence advocates and feminist activists have campaigned for decades to raise awareness of sexual assault and sexual harassment in Australian university settings and agitated for improved institutional responses. However, it was not until the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s landmark Change the Course report in 2017 that the first comprehensive national survey data on the incidence of campus-based sexual assault and sexual harassment in Australia, and its impact, was firmly established.

The Change the Course report documented the survey responses of more than 30,000 students across 39 universities, together with 1849 submissions. It highlighted what former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins described as a “disturbing picture” of sexual and gendered violence within Australian university settings including on campus, while travelling to or from university, at an off-campus event organised by or endorsed by the university, and at university employment. The Commission found that 1.6% of students were sexually assaulted and 21% of students were sexually harassed in a university setting in 2015 and/or 2016. Women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, culturally and linguistically-diverse students and international students, students with disability, and LGBTIQ students were found to be more likely to experience incidents of sexual assault and harassment.

The impact of sexual assault and sexual harassment on individual students includes long-term health consequences such as unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, anxiety, depression, social isolation, substance abuse disorders and self-harming behaviours. Being subjected to sexual violence can also be highly disruptive to a survivors’ educational experiences, affecting their sense of safety on campus, limiting their extracurricular and social interaction and adversely impacting their academic performance and completion rates.

Compounding these harmful impacts, many Australian university students have reported experiencing institutional betrayal, when institutions dismiss a survivor’s experience, insensitively respond to a disclosure, fail to take proactive steps in investigating a report, or academically punish a survivor for reporting. Institutional betrayal has been identified as a compounding factor in the trauma experienced by student survivors who have been disappointed by their university or residential college’s response, leading to stigmatisation and further trauma-related outcomes such as anxiety and depression.

What have universities been doing to reduce campus sexual violence?

In response to the release of the Change the Course report in 2017, universities, residential colleges and their peak bodies Universities Australia and University Colleges Australia adopted a range of initiatives aimed at strengthening responses to sexual violence in university settings. These measures included implementing reviews of existing university policies and response pathways; taking steps to increase the availability and visibility of support services, including through information apps; providing training and education to students in relation to sexual assault, sexual harassment and respectful relationships; conducting audits of university counselling services; providing first response training to staff members and student representatives most likely to receive disclosures; and establishing internal advisory bodies or working groups to lead these efforts.

Despite this effort, the release of a second student survey in March 2022, the 2021 National Student Safety Survey (NSSS), demonstrated that the Australian university sector had failed to reduce campus sexual violence or achieve institutional accountability and transparency in the management and prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Commissioned by Universities Australia on behalf of its 39 member universities, the NSSS found that in the preceding 12 months:

  • 1.4% of female students and 0.6% of male students had been sexually assaulted in a university context.
  • 10.5% of female students, 14.7% of transgender students, 22.4% of non-binary students and 3.9% of male students had experienced sexual harassment in a university context.

Advocates have noted that the NSSS survey was conducted while 58.5% of participating students were undertaking all of their classes online due to the impact of pandemic lockdowns, suggesting that these figures are likely conservative.

Given university efforts following the Change the Course report, it was troubling that more than half of students participating in the NSSS reported knowing “very little or nothing” about their university’s sexual assault and harassment policies and almost as many knew “nothing or very little” about where they could seek support or assistance within their university.

The NSSS also demonstrated that students continued to lacked confidence in their institutions’ handling of sexual violence. Just 3% of students subjected to sexual harassment and 5.6% of students subjected to sexual assault had made a formal report or complaint to their university, a deterioration from 2016 when the comparable reporting rates in Change the Course were still a troubling 6% and 13% respectively. Of those who reported sexual harassment in 2021, only 41.3% were satisfied with the university’s process. For those reporting sexual assault, this figure dropped to 29.7%. 

What are the Threshold Standards and what has the national regulator, TEQSA, been doing to reduce campus sexual violence?

One of the key barriers to more effective action to tackle campus sexual violence has been the absence of robust monitoring and enforcement of university commitments following Change the Course. Despite its lack of specialised expertise in sexual violence, and without the allocation of additional funding or resources, the national higher education regulator – the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) – was identified by the former Coalition government as the most appropriate agency to oversee the sector’s responses to the Change the Course report.

In addition to TEQSA’s regulatory functions around registration of higher education providers and accreditation of courses, the TEQSA Act provides broad powers for TEQSA to administer the legislated Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2021, which specify the requirements that a higher education provider must continue to meet to be registered by TEQSA to operate in Australia as a provider of higher education. TEQSA has a range of regulatory tools available to utilise if it finds a provider non-compliant with the Threshold Standards, including administrative sanctions such as shortening or cancelling the period of an accredited course or a provider’s registration; civil penalty provisions; infringement notices; enforceable undertakings; and injunctions.

While TEQSA has undertaken a range of activities in this area since 2017, my doctoral research found that stakeholders across the sector considered TEQSA poorly positioned and ill-equipped to lead this work. Among the key issues identified include:

  • the lack of compulsion on universities to adopt TEQSA good practice guidance
  • TEQSA’s apparent reluctance to escalate its regulatory responses to hold universities accountable to the Threshold Standards
  • the adverse impact of TEQSA’s complaints processes on student survivors
  • the lack of transparency around TEQSA’s regulatory investigations
  • TEQSA’s episodic management of incidents, which has enabled universities to deflect responsibility and suppress systemic responses.

Senate Estimates information collated for my research indicates that TEQSA’s administration of the Threshold Standards as they apply to sexual violence has been highly problematic. Between September 2017 and 30 November 2022 TEQSA undertook more than 60 individual assessments of universities’ sexual violence policies and procedures. Across these investigations, TEQSA did not find a single university to be non-compliant with the Threshold Standards regarding Wellbeing and Safety – even on the five occasions when universities had themselves notified TEQSA in relation to a matter of concern around their handling of sexual assault or sexual harassment. The strongest sanction applied by TEQSA in the past six years has been monitoring and annual reporting of several universities.

What is the Australian government doing about campus sexual violence?

Upon its election in 2022 the Albanese Labor government established the University Accord process to “to build a visionary plan for Australia’s universities and higher education sector”.

The Accord Panel released its Interim Report last month, identifying governance improvements to address staff and student safety as one of five priority actions, noting that “concerted action” was required as “more obviously needs to be done”. The Interim Report identified more than 70 further policy ideas that the panel will continue to consider ahead of its final report in December. Among the ideas floated were strengthening the role for the Commonwealth Ombudsman in streamlining student complaints and grievances and considering the development of a national student charter (co-designed with students) to “ensure a consistent national approach to the welfare, safety and wellbeing of all students”. The panel referred to the recent introduction in New Zealand of a Code of Practice supporting student safety and wellbeing as a potential model.

In introducing legislation in August 2023 to address several of the Interim Report’s priority actions, Education Minister Jason Clare acknowledged that the actions taken by universities to address sexual violence to date “have not been good enough”. Minister Clare flagged several additional measures including:

  • The introduction of a new legislated requirement for higher education providers to have “support for students” policies, backed by mandatory guidelines and financial penalties under the Higher Education Support Act 2003.
  • The establishment of a new working group, including an expert on prevention and response to sexual harassment and sexual violence, to provide advice to Education Ministers on the immediate actions required to improve student and staff safety on campus, including in student accommodation settings. The working group will be required to consult with advocate groups such as End Rape on Campus Australia and Fair Agenda who have been calling for a new national, expert-led independent body to tackle sexual violence.
  • A referral to the Higher Education Standards Panel asking that they consider the effectiveness of the current  Threshold Standards framework in supporting students. Importantly, the Minister has specified that the Panel consider how to ensure universities are appropriately implementing the Threshold Standards; and improving students’ awareness of their existence.

While these prospective measures certainly have promise, they will only be effective if they address the current systemic deficiencies. We know from TEQSA’s failed oversight of the self-regulating university sector that all reforms need to be student-centred, expert-informed and appropriately resourced; incorporating enforceable penalties and encompassing transparent monitoring and reporting procedures. Most importantly, they will need to be backed by concerted national political will to hold Australian universities accountable for student safety and wellbeing.