National sexual harassment survey of university students

The Australian Human Rights Commission is to conduct an independent survey of the nation’s university students to gain greater insight into the nature, prevalence and reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment. The survey will also investigate the effectiveness of services and policies that address sexual assault and harassment on campus.

Universities Australia, the peak body representing higher education institutions, asked the commission to undertake the survey as part of a campaign dubbed ‘Respect. Now. Always.’ that was launched by the university sector in February to tackle sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Described by universities as “the first of its kind”, the online survey will be completed by a random sample of more than 60,000 students, with the results expected to be published before the end of the year.

As well as the survey, the commission is also asking university students to tell of their experiences and views of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Commission president, Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs, said the survey was decades overdue.

Triggs said she hoped the data would “shine a light on disturbing initiation rituals, the experience of international students, and the rates of sexual assaults at universities” compared to the wider community.

"The human stories are important but, ultimately, to develop policy, to respond to it in a nationwide consistent manner, we ultimately need research," she said. "It will produce, I believe, scientifically valuable data that allows the vice-chancellors then to agree on processes for the future."

In addition to students on university campuses, members of the military and now the Australian Federal Police have all been caught up in accusations of widespread sexual harassment, most often by senior males on junior females and, to a lesser extent, males in lower positions.

Launch of the survey

Speaking at the launch of the university survey project, Opposition Labor Party deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said she had been stalked and threatened with rape while working as a women's officer at the University of Technology Sydney.

"It is heartbreaking that we are still asking students to cope in an environment where they don't feel safe, where they feel harassed, where they feel actually physically at risk," Plibersek said.

Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, said complaint systems could often prove difficult to navigate and produce unsatisfactory outcomes. “Over the past year, we have heard a great deal about sexual assault and sexual harassment of university students. These reports are worrying. The data we expect to collect from this survey will provide the evidence needed to continue to develop effective prevention strategies and responses.”

Heidi La Paglia, a women's officer at the National Union of Students, said she had heard countless stories of sexual assault or harassment from students, many of whom did not report it or felt let down by the response. "I think the relief will come when the problem stops and when students no longer have to feel unsafe on university campuses," La Paglia said.

Universities Australia Chair and Vice-chancellor of Western Sydney University, Barney Glover, said that for many students who had been attacked or abused, the damage of sexual assault and sexual harassment could not be undone.

“The impact of these incidents reverberates throughout a lifetime. We know we cannot continue to improve how universities respond and support those students who need us most without hearing from the students themselves,” Glover said.

Sexual assault on US campuses

The campaign against sexual assault follows a series of on-campus screenings of The Hunting Ground, a United States documentary about sexual assault on American college campuses and the failure of college administrations to tackle the issue. As in many if not most Western countries, sexual harassment is widespread in US workplaces and on campuses.

Nor is the harassment confined to undergraduate female students. Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon in the US, and two of her PhD students surveyed 539 graduate students, out of about 3,500 graduate students enrolled overall, at a large public university and found that rates of sexual harassment of graduate female students were almost identical to those found nearly 30 years ago on other large university campuses.

“In our research, both male and female students reported experiencing sexual harassment. However, women in our sample were more likely to have been sexually harassed than men were,” Freyd said.

“More than a third of graduate women in our sample reported they had experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff, ranging from repeated sexist remarks and sexualised jokes to unwanted sexual touching and sexual coercion. This compared to about a fifth of graduate men.

“Our results are comparable to findings from the 1980s and 1990s, when research found that a third of female graduate students experienced sexual harassment. Of our female participants who had been harassed, 86% had been harassed by men. Of our male participants who had been harassed, 64% had been harassed by men as well," she said.

Freyd said the results showed that despite almost a third of a century and greater representation of women in higher education, sexual harassment was still a clear problem in academia. She said several decades ago, universities lacked the language to talk about sexual harassment and guidelines to respond to it.

“But today, universities are clearly told by the federal government that sexual harassment is not acceptable in education. All universities should have publicly available definitions of what exactly sexual harassment is and instructions on how to report when it happens. Many schools have even created task forces to address sexual violence on campus.”

University of Sydney ‘deliberately stalling’

The University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest university and among the most prestigious, has been subject to a succession of sexism and sexual assault claims in recent months. Now a dozen women’s officers have accused the university of “stalling” instead of taking action.

In an open letter to the University of Sydney Vice-chancellor Michael Spence, the women outline what they describe as “damning failures of student safety mechanisms”. They present a “raft of policy changes that are needed to guarantee that sexual harassment and assault are taken seriously by the university”.

"For an entire decade we have been raising the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus with the administration. For an entire decade we have been met with resistance to change," the letter says.

“It seems to us that the university has deliberately stalled action on sexual assault, assuming that once women's officers and other activists finish their term, or graduate from university, the institutional knowledge required for a sustained campaign on this issue is lost. This assumption is unfounded.”

Anna Hush, one of the women’s officers who signed the letter, said that since December when she took up her role, she had been approached by 15 women who claimed to be victims of sexual assault or harassment on the university campus. She said these included cases of women who said they had been raped on campus.

"The same stories of rape and harassment are repeated over and over. Periodically, a particularly high profile case may break into mainstream media, but as the media cycle moves on, and damage control measures are implemented, the issue is once again put to the bottom of the agenda. This has gone on long enough," Hush said.

A university spokesman said any suggestion the university had stalled action on assault on campus was untrue. "It remains deeply disturbing that the prevalence of sexual assault is not zero. However, an extensive campus survey has demonstrated that the incidence of sexual assault on campus is much lower than in the general community,” the spokesman said.

The survey was conducted with support and input from the student community who helped to guide the structure and nature of questions in the survey, he said. "The university will continue to do whatever it can – including discussing many of the sensible recommendations outlined in the letter – to reduce the experience of sexual assault on campus.”