Last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) undertook a national survey about sexual assault and sexual harassment experienced by university students. In addition to the survey, which gained over 39,000 responses from a random sample of 60,000 students at 39 universities, nearly 2,000 additional submissions were given by victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault.

On Tuesday August 1st, a report was released detailing the results of this survey. The AHRC published a report titled Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities. It can be found here. The national results published from the AHRC will not include data on sexual assaults or harassment at individual universities or campuses, leaving the onus on each university to release their own information.

After facing backlash from students about their initial decision not to release data specific to Monash, Monash University published its data soon after the release of the report. Data specific to Monash University can be found here.

Monash University refused to brief student representatives on specific campus data from the survey before the results were released. University administration claimed that Monash was under embargo until the public release of the survey, however other universities made exceptions to ensure student representatives were sufficiently prepared and informed of the data.  

The national survey revealed that 51% of students were sexually harassed at least once in 2016. One in five of those students were sexually harassed in a university setting. The report also found that 94 percent of those who were sexually harassed did not make a formal complaint to their university, and neither did 87 percent of students who were sexually assaulted. Female students were twice as likely to be harassed than their male counterparts, and three times as likely to be sexually assaulted or raped. A large majority of perpetrators were fellow students and were male.

The report also showed that students who identified as Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander, students with a disability, students who identified as bisexual, and students who identified as transgender or gender diverse, were more likely to have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. It then stated that a majority of students who had witnessed an incident of sexual assault or sexual harassment failed to take any action in response. The report called on “universities to provide appropriate bystander education to equip students to take appropriate action when witnessing an incident of sexual assault or sexual harassment”.

The report concluded that the four main contributing factors to sexual assault or sexual harassment were attitudes towards women, alcohol, the perpetrator abusing a position of power, and residential settings. The report stated that “universities are in a unique position to prevent and respond to sexual assault and sexual harassment” and that the information contained in the report is a “call to action for universities to address these factors and ensure that they are providing students with a safe, supportive learning environment that does not tolerate sexual assault or harassment”.

In a questionable move, Universities Australia have taken credit for commissioning the landmark survey as part of their Respect. Now. Always. initiative targeted at improving university policy and services regarding sexual assault. Monash University has also come under fire previously for refusing to comply with the largest ever Freedom of Information investigation into reports of sexual misconduct at universities by Channel 7.

In response to the survey data, the Monash Student Association has launched SHIFT: A campaign to stop sexual violence at Monash. More information about that can be found here. This was also influenced by the fact the university does not have any policy or procedures in place to deal with cases of sexual assault that are reported to the university. This is particularly ironic considering Margaret Gardner is chairman of Universities Australia and launched the Respect. Now. Always campaign.

Separate to the AHRC survey, but related to Monash’s response to sexual assault on its campuses, the University refused to comply with a Freedom of Information (FOI) request issued by the media late last year. The FOI request asked for data around the number of reported cases of sexual assault to the university, and the number of expulsions that had been issued to perpetrators as a result of these reports. Eventually, all 38 of 39 universities complied except for Monash. The issue was taken all the way to the FOI Commissioner who began an investigation into the request and Monash’s refusal to comply. MSA President Matilda Grey worked with renowned journalist Nina Funnell to construct a news story around the matter, and when Monash was contacted 24 hours before the release of the story, they finally decided to comply with the FOI. This behaviour clearly defines Monash’s bureaucratic concern to act only to protect its brand, and not in the interests of students. With such a history of avoidance around the issue of sexual assault, it is difficult to trust that Monash will indeed follow through with its promise to implement all recommendations handed down by the AHRC following the release of the survey.

If you or anyone you know needs support, please contact Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, who provide a specialist trauma and counselling service on 1800 572 224.

Sophia McNamara

The author Sophia McNamara

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