On 1 August, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a landmark report on university students’ experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
We have known for many years about these behaviours occurring within Australia’s universities. However, until recently, we lacked the data to show the true extent of this problem.
The Commission’s Change the course report follows years of tireless work by student representatives, survivors of sexual assault and advocates, including the Hunting Ground Australia Project, End Rape on Campus and the National Union of Students.
Thanks to their work and with the support of all 39 Australian universities, we have been able to gather the first statistically significant, national data on the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment at universities.
The data is based on survey responses from more than 30,000 students from all 39 Australian universities – making it the largest survey of its kind in Australia.
The findings of the national student survey are now well-known.
Our research showed that sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring, to varying degrees, across all university settings.
One in five (21%) university students were sexual harassed in a university setting (excluding travel to or from university) in 2016.
1.6% of students were sexually assaulted in a university setting in 2015 or 2016.
While men also experience these behaviours, the national survey also found that women at university experience disproportionately higher rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment than men.
In 2016, women were almost twice as likely as men to have been sexually harassed in a university setting.
Women were more than three times as likely as men to have been sexually assaulted in a university setting in 2015 or 2016.
We found that students who identified as bisexual, gay, lesbian and homosexual reported higher rates of these behaviours than those who identified as heterosexual. And although sample sizes were small, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and students with disability were more likely to have been sexually harassed in 2016 than non-Indigenous students and students without disability.
Only 2% of people who were sexually harassed and 9% of those who were sexually assaulted at university made a formal report or complaint to their university.
The results of the Commission’s national survey add to the growing body of highlighting disturbing levels of sexual violence and violence against women in Australia.
Thousands of students completed the national survey. A further 1800 made submissions to the Commission, sharing their personal experiences.
They deserve swift and deliberate action.
I hope that the Change the course report will be a call to action for Australia’s universities.
The report includes a series of recommendations to assist universities in preventing and better responding to sexual assault and sexual harassment.
In the first instance, university leaders to need to make a strong and visible commitment to action and to better engage with students. This must be accompanied by clear and transparent implementation of our recommendations.
Sexual assault and sexual harassment are often driven by deeply held norms and attitudes about women, their role in society and relationships between men and women. That is why we are calling on universities to undertake targeted education and campaigns aimed at changing attitudes and behaviours.
Sexual assault and sexual harassment have a devastating impact on individuals – physically, emotionally and psychologically. We are urging universities to improve their responses to sexual assault and sexual harassment, including ensuring that students have access to specialist support.
The report also recommends monitoring and evaluation of measures taken to ensure that they are evidence-based and that improvements are made over time.
Finally, we have recommended that an independent, expert-led review identify measures to address the high prevalence rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment at residential colleges.
It is heartening that a number of universities have already accepted the Commission’s recommendations.
Universities are a key setting where I believe that progress can be made towards ending violence against women in Australia.
On current enrolment numbers, university students make up around 5% of the Australian population.
Given the size of the university community, taking action to address sexual assault and sexual harassment will not only have a positive impact on universities, but also has the potential to effect change in Australian society more broadly.
By implementing these recommendations, universities can contribute to changing Australia’s national culture to one that does not tolerate sexual assault or sexual harassment in any form.
The Change the course report is the starting point for a new conversation, focused on ensuring that all students can access education in environments that are safe and which enable them to achieve their full potential.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission