Letter from Australia: Changing the conversation

There are some moments in history when the Earth shifts ever so slightly on its axis. One of the defining moments of our time is the change in mood toward sexual assault and harassment as evidenced by the #metoo movement.

The zeitgeist was already in a period of flux prior to the Harvey Weinstein scandal. In 2015, a US documentary called The Hunting Ground had highlighted the prevalence of predatory sexual conduct on university campuses and the willingness of university leaders to turn a blind eye.

In Australia, as elsewhere, that documentary triggered a system-wide response to the issue. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) undertook a large scale survey of 30,000 students to gauge the extent of sexual harassment and assault on domestic campuses. That was released in 2017 with a follow-up audit in 2018.

Universities Australia released an awareness program: Respect. Now. Always.

And the regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), was tasked with evaluating whether universities and other higher education providers had worked towards implementing policies and processes to address the recommendations in the AHRC report.

Evaluating responses

The initial report found that, while 51% of university students said they had experienced sexual harassment or assault in 2016, only 1.6% had experienced it while on the physical university campus, while travelling to and from university, or while undertaking university-sanctioned events in another place.

That’s strikingly different to the UK. I’m not sure about the veracity, but last year a report from Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room found that 62% of respondents to a survey said they had experienced sexual violence, and a shocking 8% of female respondents said they had been raped at university – double the national average.

Certainly, these figures are shocking, although undoubtedly inflated by the small sample size (4,500 students from 153 institutions), the methodology of the survey and how respondents were recruited. Universities UK arrived at a more sober, but still alarming, estimate of one in seven students.

At the time of the AHRC report, there was criticism that the 30,000 sample size was too small since it represented just one-fiftieth of the students enrolled on Australian campuses. There were also concerns about the self-selecting nature of the survey.

Adding some context

It’s also worth pointing out the rather odd demographics of the Australian university population. Unlike their peers in the UK, US, Canada and even New Zealand, Australian students are very home-oriented with the vast majority attending the university closest to their home postcode. And despite our image of a “sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains and ragged mountain ranges”, to quote Dorothea Mackellar, Australia is in fact one of the most urbanised countries on the planet. Two thirds of Australian universities have their HQ in a major metropolitan city and just one – Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra – has a large proportion of its undergraduate students living on campus.

Not surprisingly, ANU reported among the highest levels of sexual assault and harassment in the AHRC survey. (It’s also worth noting that ANU actively encouraged its students to respond to the survey.)

There is, of course, the very real issue of predatory sexual behaviour among postgraduate supervisors. The TEQSA report found that postgraduate students were twice as likely to report having been sexually harassed by a lecturer or tutor as undergraduates. It found that less than half of Australian universities had a policy that “guides interaction between postgraduate students and staff, although some use other codes that state sexual relationships between staff and students are not appropriate”.

Cause for concern

Anyway, back to TEQSA. It’s evaluation of how institutions responded to the AHRC report and its nine recommendations are generally responsive and well advanced. Except, that is, among non-university providers which seem to think that sticking their collective heads in the sand will make the issue go away.

TEQSA found that just 24% of the 126 non-university providers had established or planned to establish a taskforce to address sexual harassment and assault. Just less than half had zero – repeat zero – policy on sexual assault.

“This very large number of independent and TAFE higher education providers, apparently without a policy on sexual assault or sexual harassment, is concerning,” TEQSA opined. Furthermore just 18% of HEPs had information for students about sexual assault and harassment on their websites.

TEQSA was not impressed saying the lack of proper (or any) measures in place “could leave victims of such incidents without access to the necessary resources and potentially jeopardise their recovery from the incident and consequently their ability to study”.

The massive shift in public consciousness about inappropriate sexual behaviour is a welcome and overdue one.

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