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Making sense of universities response to AHRC survey

The recent survey from the Australian Human Rights Commission received over 1,800 submissions from more than 30,000 students across all 39 Australian universities. The results were damning – Change the course: National report on sexual harassment at Australian universities revealed that although 6.9 per cent of respondents experienced sexual assault in a university setting in 2015 or 2016, only 1.6 per cent reported it. There was a similar pattern when it came to sexual harassment in 2016, with 21 per cent reporting an incident despite 51 per cent of students harassed at least once.

Four significant contributing factors were highlighted as recurring themes in the event of sexual assault and harassment:

  • Attitudes towards women
  • Alcohol
  • Perpetrator abusing a position of power
  • Residential settings

Significant effort must be committed to rectifying each of these areas, but investigation into students’ reporting of sexual harassment and assault uncovered arguably the biggest issue of all. An astounding 94 per cent of students who had been sexually harassed did not make a formal complaint to anyone at the university, and 87 per cent of sexual assault victims did the same. Roughly 60 per cent of students who experienced harassment or assault weren’t aware of where they should go to file a report.

The prevalence of this uncertainty is one area that universities must attack head on. It is difficult enough for victims to speak about their experiences to someone whose job it is to assist them, let alone go on a wild goose chase just to find the appropriate person.

It is worth taking into consideration that ‘university setting’ encompasses public transport to and from university, indicating that not all acts of sexual assault or harassment occur on campus. There is debate over whether this should be the responsibility of the university – after all, what would happen if you were sexually assaulted on the train home from your workplace?

Nevertheless, universities are looking to get on the front foot and have already compiled a 10-point plan to address students being sexually harassed and assaulted. It is great that there has been such a swift reaction from the university fraternity, but hopefully this is not a token tactic simply to appease concerned stakeholders in the now, but an approach that will improve student safety and culture in the long term.

Fixing this problem isn’t as simple as telling students where to go if there is an incident. A shift in attitude is required, away from the culture of victim-blaming that can significantly influence whether someone subjected to sexual assault or harassment feels comfortable that their complaint will be taken seriously.