Postgraduates endure university staff sexual abuse

Australian postgraduates suffer from widespread sexual harassment and assault by staff they work with, according to the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations.

National council President Peter Derbyshire says anyone who has spent time with postgraduate students knows it is “the worst kept secret in academia that such behaviour occurs”.

“I have spent almost five years representing postgraduate students and there are always these stories but students are too afraid to speak up,” he says. “Under the current structures there is nothing to protect a student from reprisals in their career if they do report these issues.”

Results from the Australian Human Rights Commission survey of sexual harassment and assault in universities will not come as a surprise to many student leaders, Derbyshire says. But the findings provide the groundwork needed to make real change.

Referring to the results of the commission’s survey, he says one of the greatest concerns is the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by staff on campus towards postgraduate students.

The report of the survey says 10% of postgraduates have experienced sexual harassment from a tutor or lecturer, 5% from a non-academic staff member, 4% sexual assault from a fellow university worker and 3% sexual assault from a supervisor.

“These results indicate that sexual violence from staff towards postgraduate students was higher than towards undergraduates. What is worse, given that undergraduates outnumber postgraduates almost three to one, is that these numbers present a grim story for the student-staff relationship at this level,” he says.

“The power imbalance between research students and staff at the postgraduate level is a long-standing issue for Australian universities. Reporting is also a recognised issue, with many universities having vague or absent reporting structures when it comes to sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“For postgraduate students, whose supervisors hold their career in their hands, this is also an issue of a power imbalance and fear. [The council’s] 19 recommendations to address the issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment are aimed at enabling students to report these issues without fear of reprisal.”

The council’s Women’s Officer, Alyssa Shaw, said bullying and harassment by supervisors and teaching staff were commonplace and were well-known and prevalent issues in universities.

“But now we have evidence to support what has been long denied or overlooked, that sexual harassment and assault are also prevalent among postgraduates, particularly from university staff,” Shaw said.

“Sexual assault and sexual harassment is insidious and systemic within all Australian universities and more action is needed to address this issue than what has been announced. Universities should be looking to the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations’ recommendations if they want meaningful and substantive change.”