A new national ombuds will get tough on providers over sexual misconduct

I’ve banged on at length on the site about the snail’s pace that characterises the Westminster government and England regulator’s progress on harassment and sexual misconduct.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s all in marked contrast to Australia – which managed a national prevalence survey, TEQSA regulation and an apology from the boss of Universities Australia within weeks of student activists launching the equivalent of “Hidden Marks” in the middle of the last decade.

And now they’re going even further down under.

Late last year ministers floated the idea of an independent ombudsperson to look at complaints of harassment and sexual misconduct – prompting Universities Australia to attempt the usual push back:

It would be inefficient to create duplication and overlap with existing regulation and regulatory bodies that deal with these issues.

But in the new Action Plan Addressing Gender-based Violence in Higher Education, ministers (along with the states and territories) have pushed ahead both with that new ombudsperson and a raft of other measures.

Australia doesn’t have an Office of the Independent Adjudicator equivalent – but it’s now getting one to both take student complaints generally, and those surrounding harassment and sexual misconduct specifically. And it’s going to get more powers than the OIA has to fix things:

  • receive and investigate student complaints about the administrative actions of their higher education providers
  • make recommendations to a provider about the administrative steps that should be taken to resolve a complaint
  • offer a restorative engagement process between student and provider where appropriate
  • work with regulators in the sector to identify and respond to systemic issues
  • promote best practice complaints handling across the higher education sector

As well as that, there’s a section on “whole provider approaches” that will sound familiar – although that has specific mentions of university-affiliated student associations, clubs and societies, violence in the context of staff and student power dynamics (including supervision of higher degree research students) and “respectful relationships education” will be a core component of the learning experience of all students.

Underpinning that, a “trauma-informed” response system will have to include effectively responding to disclosures, reports and conducting disciplinary processes; ongoing support and safety planning mechanisms, including while disciplinary processes are underway; establishing referral pathways to relevant services; and expert-led response training for staff and students. It also includes the provision of specific expert-led training for staff on responding to disclosures and reports about gender-based violence, including sexual harassment.

A new National Higher Education Code to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence will set rules, embedding evidence-based primary prevention activities and respectful relationships education in student activities and staff induction and development; service-level standards for student and staff support and response; and a proposed “expertise level” for people involved in investigations and disciplinary processes – a statutory “duty of care”, if you will.

There will also be requirements to explicitly consider and address the needs of different student and staff cohorts and the intersectionality of these needs, including LGBTIQA+ people, international staff and students, culturally and linguistically diverse people, First Nations people, people with disability and higher degree research students; whole-of-organisation data collection and reporting to the Australian Government; regular and transparent public-facing reporting of prevalence of gender-based violence, and prevention and response activities; and the publication of provider plans.

A new government unit will provide new comparable, national and public reporting on data, including prevalence, disclosures and reports; student/staff awareness of and satisfaction with reporting pathways; provider performance; and overall sector performance, including through annual reporting to Parliament through the Australian Government Minister for Education. And there will be proper information sharing between the national bodies.

There’s even a whole section on student accommodation providers – private operators will be individually accountable under the National Code, with further work by the Australian Government and in consultation with states and territories, to investigate and establish a new regulatory framework as soon as possible – which will include elimination of the requirement of victim-survivors to recount their traumatic experiences multiple times, and to seamlessly integrate safety and support systems between education institutions and accommodation providers.

There will also be reform to “unsuitable” disciplinary procedures – providers will be asked to establish a panel of experts with the necessary expertise, experience and powers to oversee processes “that prioritise safety, support trauma-informed practice and centre the voices and needs of victim-survivors while upholding procedural fairness.”

Yes – it stops short of a ban on staff-student relationships, and yes – a lot of that is in OfS’ proposals. But they’re getting on with it, and in a much more sophisticated way – while over here we wait and wait and wait and wait.

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