Labor promises taskforce on campus sexual harassment

Australia’s universities and their residential colleges will be answerable to a new independent taskforce responsible for tackling sexual harassment and assault on campus. With claims that half of Australia’s one million university students have been sexually harassed at some time, the Australian Labor Party says it will impose penalties on universities that do not act – should it win the federal election to be held early next year.

Labor says the new taskforce will be established to take action against universities that fail to protect their students.

In a report last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission said that more than half the students it had surveyed about their experiences on campus had suffered sexual harassment. Tanya Plibersek, Labor’s deputy leader in the federal parliament, said it was time for action against universities that did not respond.

Three reports in the past five years had focused on the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus, including a comprehensive study by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Plibersek said.

“What those reports have shown is that sexual harassment and sexual assault [is occurring] on a troubling scale in our universities.

“The commission report found, for example, that in 2016 just over half of students had been sexually harassed on campus. We've got a million students on our campuses. That’s 500,000 people that have been harassed and 7% reported sexual assaults – 70,000 students!”

While universities claimed to have adopted `best practice’ to reduce sexual assault and sexual harassment, and to deal with any incidents that did occur, it was necessary to ensure they were taking action, Plibersek said. “That they're actually doing it, they're actually changing practices. We also need to identify the incidents that are occurring and how they're being dealt with, and we want to see a decline in the number of incidents over time.”

Over the first three years of the taskforce’s operations, annual reports would be produced, she said.

“At the end of the three years, we hope a comprehensive report would show that best practice was indeed being adopted on university campuses and that it was having an impact on reducing numbers of assaults.”

In one interview, Plibersek was asked what penalties could be imposed on universities and residential colleges that did not take action.

But she said what was most important was to encourage universities to take the issue seriously, while also ensuring they had the resources dedicated to dealing with it.

“Transparency is important for its own sake, but we do have options open to us. The taskforce could recommend to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, for example, that fines be imposed.”

Plibersek said that if she were education minster she could, as a last resort, withhold funding from universities that were not compliant or were not taking the issue seriously.

“University colleges are more complex because a number of the older colleges are established under state laws. But I don't rule out working with the states to change the laws under which colleges are established because the reports [of harassment and assault] are just too troubling.

“One report a couple of years ago said 600 incidents of assault were examined and 145 of those were rapes. Six perpetrators were actually banned from university after those sexual assaults.”

Responding to the Opposition’s plans, the National Tertiary Education Union called for a widening of the taskforce inquiry to include sexual harassment of university staff, as well as students.

“We have been working to combat the problem of sexual harassment at universities and we know it is a major problem for staff,” said the union’s national president, Dr Alison Barnes.

“A union survey earlier this year showed that 20% of staff respondents had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, yet less than 5% made a formal complaint,” Barnes said.

Financial penalties proposed for universities that failed to address sexual harassment should cover all those involved – workers and students.

“University staff are working in the same environment as students and we need to ensure that universities take sexual harassment seriously throughout the whole institution,” Barnes said.

A national report on family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia found that two in five Australian women would be physically or sexually assaulted at some point in their adult life.

But while Australians are more aware that such violence is common, the results of a new survey show some worrying attitudes to the victims: Some 42% of Australians believe women lie about being sexually assaulted, while 31% say “a lot of times” women who said they were raped had “led the man on and then had regrets”.

Inaction in other countries

Elsewhere around the world, action against sexual harassment and assault on university campuses seems to compare less favourably with that initiated in Australia.

In the United Kingdom, The Guardian newspaper triggered an official inquiry in 2016 after revealing that claims of harassment, sexual violence and hate crimes on university campuses were being ignored by authorities.

A report from the inquiry called for “institution-wide action to tackle violence against women, harassment and hate crime by creating a zero-tolerance culture”.

But, nearly two years later, the same paper reported that senior politicians, student leaders and equality campaigners were accusing universities of failing to tackle the problem effectively.

Doubling down in the US

In the United States, the issue of sexual assault on campus is complicated by the number of different state administrations and the huge number of higher education institutions.

But, according to a report in US News and World Report, colleges and universities “have doubled down” to combat sexual violence on campus.

The increased action started in 2011 when the federal Department of Education told universities and colleges they had to better protect their students or risk losing federal funding.

During the Obama administration, the department launched more than 300 investigations into the way universities were handling complaints of sexual assault. The department also tackled potential violations of landmark legislation guaranteeing women equal rights to education.

Under President Donald Trump, however, a lessening of the need for institutions to act in cases of sexual assault seems to be occurring.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed new rules to colleges and universities on addressing sexual harassment or assault cases, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Her aim appears to include restricting the institutions’ liability for incidents in general and excluding liability for incidents that happen off-campus.

The new policies would also strengthen the rights of students accused of assault, harassment or rape – including, controversially, allowing them, through a third party, to cross examine their accusers at a live hearing – while seeking to provide more support for victims.

Democrats in the House and Senate condemned the proposals as undermining support for sexual harassment victims.