Samantha is a Master of Advanced Journalism student at UTS. She is the executive producer of FBI’s Backchat and her writing has appeared in The Guardian Australia, Overland, Broadsheet and Honi Soit.
Landmark report reveals widespread under reporting of sexual assault and harassment at Australian Universities.
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) report found that 21 per cent of university students experienced sexual harassment in a university setting at least once in 2016.
A further 6.9 per cent of students experienced sexual assault at least once in 2015 or 2016.
Of those assaulted on campus, 68 per cent of perpetrators were known to be fellow university students.
These findings and more emerge from the AHRC landmark report on sexual assault at universities that was released today by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
The key take away is that students don’t feel safe reporting these things to their universities
The 264 page report was the culmination of months of research and multiple surveys conducted by the AAHRC in conjunction with Universities Australia. More than 30, 000 students responded to the national survey from 39 universities across Australia.
End Rape on Campus ambassador Anna Hush said that these findings were “harrowing but unsurprising”.
“The key take away is that students don’t feel safe reporting these things to their universities because universities don’t put into place adequate prevention strategies or adequate reporting services.”
The report found that 87 per cent of students that were sexually assaulted and 94 per cent of students that were sexually harassed did not make a formal complaint to their university.
Individual universities also released their specific findings to coincide with AHRC’s report. Across the board, it was found universities did not make reporting procedures clear enough nor accessible enough though the picture varies from institution to institution.
For womens officers on the ground, the report’s findings, and the way that students feel about their knowledge of where to report are not surprising.
Imogen Grant is co-womens officer at the University of Sydney. Grant said that students often came to her to disclose their experiences of sexual assault because they were unsure of how else to do so, “Sydney uni has a reporting system, but its hard to find and to navigate.”
University responses have been varied across the country. Many have responded by launching visible, easy to use reporting portals. ANU recently announced that they would be introducing an on campus sexual assault councillor.
Overall, advocates feel positive about the way universities are responding to the report’s findings, but Grant feels it is a little too late. “Universities have known about this report for almost year and known about this problem for decades. It’s telling that they are only addressing these issues now that they are under public scrutiny.”
Co-womens officer at the University of Sydney Katie Thorburn agrees. “Universities have long hid behind an absence of data to stall on action. They wouldn't listen to survivors, but we hope they'll listen to this new data.”
And while advocates are positive about the report’s impact, the process has not been a perfect one.
Throughout the process advocates voiced concern about the nature of the report’s survey. Originally the survey was to be sent to all university students in Australia, but instead was sent only to a ‘representative sample size’.
According to Universities Australia there are more than 1.4 million university students in Australia. Only 30,000 completed the survey out of the 319,959 students that received invitations to do so.
Advocates also took issue with the ways in which survivors were asked to categorise their experiences of harassment and assault. When describing harassment, respondents were prompted by options to describe their experience. When it came to disclosing sexual assault, these prompts were absent. Hush and other advocates agree this would lead to fewer people reporting sexual assault.
As a survivor myself I can say that my academic performance has already suffered enough
Advocates question disparities in the experiences of international and domestic students. Domestic students were 5 per cent less likely, at 22 per cent, to report harassment.
“This was an interesting finding. But we worry that it might be because the survey wasn't available in languages other than English. Individuals that would feel less comfortable completing the survey in English are also the most vulnerable,” says Hush.
The report was launched on August 1 to coincide with early semester for most students in Australia. This timing had been a cause of disagreement for women’s officers across the country during the report’s development.
AHRC first suggested releasing the report during either university holidays, a time when support services would not be available and survivor’s networks would be unavailable to support them, or during exam time.
“Exam time is bad for obvious reasons: PTSD symptoms are exacerbated by stress and university support services are usually already at capacity at this time,” says Thorburn. “As a survivor myself I can say that my academic performance has already suffered enough, it doesn’t need to suffer more”.
“The report today confirms the seriousness of this problem. While work has begun, there is more we can do,” said Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney.
His response was mirrored by other universities in the Sydney area. UNSW and UTS both released statements detailing their implementation of new procedures and training.