National drive against sexual assault in universities

Australia's universities launched a major new campaign on Friday to prevent sexual assault and harassment of students and staff, which was described as the first time in the world that an entire sector has worked together on the issue.

The campaign – Respect. Now. Always. – was launched by Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson, who said the campaign built on longstanding work across the Australian university sector.

"Over many years, policies have been developed to prevent sexual assault and harassment and ensure that services are in place to support students when they disclose or report," she said.

"But there is more that can be done, and this campaign is the next step to ensure that we keep improving and learning from best practice."

Robinson said the campaign would raise awareness among university students and staff that sexual assault and harassment are unacceptable, and provide clear pathways of support for those who need it.

"A key aim is to educate that sexual assault and harassment are unacceptable and empower those who have experienced sexual assault or harassment to seek help and support if they need it," she said.

"The campaign seeks to prevent sexual assault and harassment by raising awareness, support students in need of help, and give bystanders the confidence to speak up. We all have a role to play to ensure our university communities are places of respect – now and always."

The 'Respect. Now. Always.' campaign will be led by vice-chancellors including Professor Barney Glover (Western Sydney University), Professor S Bruce Dowton (Macquarie University) and Professor Ian Jacobs (University of New South Wales or UNSW, and Universities Australia's lead vice-chancellor on equity and diversity).

Jacobs said the potential reach of the campaign – with almost 1.3 million university students in Australia – was profound.

The initiative would signal a zero tolerance stance on sexual assault and harassment, and lift the visibility of support services.

Working together

"This groundbreaking work appears to be the first in the world where a national university sector has decided to work together on these issues on such a scale," he said. "It is a shared effort – to raise awareness, to seek more comprehensive data to inform our responses, to exchange best practice, and to commit to keep improving."

The campaign will also be an opportunity for the university sector to review the effectiveness of local policies, responses and support services to ensure they are best practice.

Working with partners including the Australian Human Rights Commission, the UNSW Australian Human Rights Centre or AHRCentre, and The Hunting Ground Australia Project Team, the sector has begun collaborative work to:
  • • Seek more comprehensive Australian data on sexual assault and harassment in universities through a national survey;
  • • Participate in a review and update of policies and procedures at universities to prevent sexual assault and harassment; and
  • • Share global best practice models for reporting incidents and supporting students who disclose sexual assault or harassment.
The campaign will precede the release of the US film 'The Hunting Ground' in Australia.

Screenings of the film, which looks at sexual assault in American universities, will also encourage discussion in Australian university communities about the importance of respect and safety.

Campaigns will appear on university websites and social media, spreading messages such as “Respect. Now. Always”, “Together we can prevent sexual assault and harassment”, and “I saw a girl getting seriously hassled. So I did something about it. Find out what you can do”.

Currently one of the most significant initiatives on sexual harassment is a project run by the AHRCentre on strengthening Australian university responses to sexual assault and harassment. It will focus on the needs of women, LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning or intersex) students and international students.

The project aims to develop model policies and protocols for academic institutions, and to engage university leaders and student bodies in dialogue about shared experiences and good practices.

The project is part of a strategic initiative established by Good Pitch Australia, directed at examining the issues raised by the 2014 American documentary 'The Hunting Ground', as they relate to the Australian context.

'The Hunting Ground', directed by the Academy Award-nominated film-making team behind 'The Invisible War', focuses on sexual violence in American universities and highlights, for Australian universities, the importance of developing effective prevention strategies and reporting mechanisms to address this issue.

In September 2015, the AHRCentre hosted a screening of 'The Hunting Ground' for an invited audience of UNSW management, support services, academics and student leadership. The screening was followed by a panel discussion, in which panellists and audience members reflected on the issues raised by the film and its relevance for Australian universities.

The AHRCentre will undertake comparative research with a focus on models developed by leading international universities; conduct interviews with UNSW student leadership, UNSW management, and legal, medical and psycho-social experts in relation to sexual assault and harassment; work with university leadership and student bodies to develop a model protocol and policy framework for use and adaptation across the university sector; engage other Australian universities in dialogue about shared experiences, best practices and future collaborative research opportunities.

The AHRCentre is also partnering with the Australian Human Rights Commission in designing and distributing a national survey on sexual assault and harassment in Australian universities this May.

Data gathering in the past

Data gathering on sexual harassment has proved difficult in the past. In 2013 leaders of Australia’s top eight universities and their residential colleges shelved attempts to collect and share data about sexual assaults on their campuses – with observers wondering if fear of media reporting and repercussions for their reputation lay behind the decision, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

In an online survey of 1,500 women by the National Union of Students in 2011, 67% of respondents said they had suffered an unwanted sexual experience at university and 17% said they had been raped, according to the same source.

The pattern of sexual harassment in universities may not be uniform, however. Crime Statistics Agency figures for Victoria released in October showed 136 sex attacks, stalking, harassment and threatening behaviour offences at universities across the state between 2004 and 2015. But nearly one third of those – 41, including 31 sexual offences, occurred at one institution, Victoria University, across its campuses, The Age reported.

Monash University had a total of 15 reports, while the state's only other Group of Eight university, Melbourne University, recorded 22. Deakin University had 18 attacks, RMIT 14, Swinburne 12 and La Trobe 10, according to The Age.

Experts have warned that obtaining accurate data can be difficult because many incidences of sexual harassment or assault go unreported.