Dr Allison Henry
Last week, the federal government released an interim report for the Universities Accord.
This review team, led by Professor Mary O'Kane, has been tasked with creating a “visionary plan” for Australian higher education. Amid their wide-ranging, 150-page report, there was a significant acknowledgement. When it comes to safety and sexual assault on campuses, “more obviously needs to be done”. As the report says:
Sexual assault and harassment on campus is affecting the wellbeing of students and staff, and their ability to succeed.
The interim report contains some initial measures and ideas to further improve student safety. But student survivors and advocates want to make sure universities are transparent about what is happening on their campuses, with real consequences if they are not.
Sexual violence on campus
In March 2022, a report commissioned by peak body Universities Australia found one in 20 students had been sexually assaulted in a university context since starting their studies. One in six had been sexually harassed in a university context since starting their studies.
Significantly these rates showed little shift from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2017 report on university sexual assaults, despite universities committing to a range of measures that would make campuses safer.
For my doctoral research, I interviewed 24 university sector stakeholders including student representatives and advocates. Many expressed frustration with the time it took for a complaint to be dealt with by universities, which often re-traumatised student survivors. They also highlighted a lack of transparency around university reporting and disciplinary measures for perpetrators.
What does the review say?
The interim report contains five initial, “priority” recommendations, which the federal government has already agreed to.
This includes a recommendation to improve university governance with a particular focus on staff and student safety and to add more higher education expertise to governing bodies. The report says the federal government needs to do this with state governments through national cabinet.
The review team is also seeking feedback on more than 70 ideas for the final report, due in December. A number of these centre around wellbeing on campus. It specifically wants to give more consideration to:
improving student wellbeing and safety, including empowering students on matters that affect them.
What needs to happen now?
Releasing the report, Education Minister Jason Clare declared his intention to immediately write to state and territory ministers and prioritise student and staff safety – among other governance issues – when they next meet.
This represents an important signal to state and territory governments that the federal government expects an escalated national response.
We certainly need state governments to be involved here.
The federal government funds and regulates higher education but apart from the Australian National University, universities are governed by state or territory legislation.
The review’s further recommendation that governments should rebalance university governing boards “to put greater emphasis on higher education expertise” offers a crucial opportunity to appoint individuals with sexual violence expertise who can advise on student safety and wellbeing.
But pursuing action on campus sexual violence through university governing boards, via state and territory governments, poses some challenges.
There are considerable jurisdictional differences in the acts governing universities and state and territory ministers have limited directive powers over university governing bodies. So, seeking nationally consistent responses across both jurisdictions and more than 40 individual institutions could prove difficult.
Complaints about complaints
The review team has suggested strengthening the role of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, extending the coverage of this federal government agency to complaints from domestic students. Currently, the agency’s coverage on matters relating to university students is quite limited.
This move could potentially provide a new streamlined avenue for students to make complaints if they have been subjected to sexual violence.
The review team also floated the development of a national student charter to “ensure a consistent national approach to the welfare, safety and wellbeing of all students”. The review noted New Zealand has recently introduced a code of practice on student safety.
If a similar code was developed in Australia, it would need to address the deficiencies of the existing Higher Education Standards Framework (which forms the basis of current regulation).
Senate estimates figures used in my research show this has not been an effective framework for tackling campus sexual violence. In part, this is because the national higher education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), has been reluctant to employ its regulatory powers against universities in relation to sexual violence.
What else do we need?
The potential measures in the interim report are promising but will need to be carefully calibrated to make campuses safe.
Under the current system, TEQSA has “moved to ensure all higher education providers are fostering safe environments”. But my research shows stakeholders are frustrated by the regulator’s “very onerous” complaints mechanisms and ineffective enforcement of regulatory standards. There is still too much onus on individual survivors to drive a complaint.
This is why university student bodies and women’s safety groups are calling for a new national, expert-led independent body, which can compel universities to be transparent around incidents and their responses to them. They also want the new body to implement sanctions if needs be. They want this body to be set up immediately.
In its 2017 report, the Human Rights Commission made a series of recommendations to make campuses safer.
This included training for staff and students about respectful and safe behaviour, promoting information about where to report incidents and how to find medical and counselling services. The commission also recommended universities ensure they have adequate and safe processes for students to report a sexual assault or harassment incident.
There is currently no monitoring mechanism around the implementation of these measures. A new independent body could also oversee this work.
Urgent action still required
At the National Press Club last week, Education Minister Jason Clare signalled he wanted to see change around sexual violence at universities, noting, “don’t underestimate the seriousness with which I take this or my willingness to act”.
An essential prerequisite for Australia’s higher education sector is that universities and residential colleges can provide a safe environment for their students.
Students, survivors and advocacy groups will be watching this space closely.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. In an emergency, call 000.
Dr Allison Henry is a Research Fellow at the Australian Human Rights Institute, UNSW Sydney.