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 was the managing editor of the Australian Journal of Human Rights from 2020-2024.

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 in July 2023, 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”. Responding to the Interim Report’s priority actions, Education Minister Jason Clare established a cross-jurisdictional working group, including an expert on prevention and response to sexual harassment and sexual violence (Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly) to provide advice to Education Ministers on the immediate actions required to improve student and staff safety on campus, including in student accommodation settings. 

A Stakeholders Reference Group, including victim-survivor advocates, student and staff representatives, subject matter experts and university and student accommodation provider representatives was also established to inform the development of a draft Action Plan.

In November 2023, the Commonwealth Department of Education released the draft Action plan to address gender-based violence in higher education for further consultation and detailed design work. The Australian Human Rights Institute welcomed the proposed reforms as a potential game-changer for Australia’s university sector, dramatically increasing the support for student survivors and enhancing institutional accountability and transparency.

Australia’s Education Ministers subsequently agreed to the final Action Plan Addressing Gender-based Violence in Higher Education on 23 February 2024. Centred on the voices and needs of student survivors, the action plan proposes a package of seven key actions including:

  • a new National Student Ombudsman to provide students with access to an effective, trauma-informed complaints mechanism; 
  • a new National Higher Education Code to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence, detailing expectations around critical incident management and provision of support to students;
  • whole-of-institution data collection and transparent reporting, including annual reporting by higher education providers through the Commonwealth Minister of Education to Parliament; and
  • a commitment to enhance the oversight, standards and accountability of student accommodation providers regarding their gender-based violence prevention and response.

Implementation of the new action plan, including the new code will be led by a new expert unit in the Department of Education, effectively diminishing the role of TEQSA, which has lost the confidence of students and survivor advocates.