Universities commended for tackling sexual harassment

Australia’s higher education institutions have been commended by the federal quality and standards agency for their efforts to prevent sexual assault and harassment on campus.

In a report to Education Minister Dan Tehan, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) applauds the “significant and comprehensive work by Australian universities to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment”.

“Universities are enhancing and protecting student well-being and safety, and relevant standards are being effectively upheld,” the agency says.

The review found that Australian universities were “moving in a positive direction”, with significant work undertaken to ensure student well-being and safety were enhanced, and that relevant standards were being upheld.

TEQSA Chief Executive Anthony McClaran said the launch of Universities Australia’s campaign, 'Respect. Now. Always.', along with release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Change the Course report and the experiences of students, had led to widespread reform in universities.

“TEQSA acknowledges the survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment, and is committed to ensuring that this review, and both the agency’s and sector’s future work on the issue, keeps student well-being and safety at the forefront of Australian higher education,” McClaran said.

The agency now had a clear picture of what the sector was doing to tackle sexual assault and harassment. Its future work would focus on ensuring these measures were being put into practice “on the ground and building capacity where needed”.

In its review, the agency found that 95% of Australian universities had adopted the recommendations of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Change the Course report, and that 93% said recent reviews of sexual assault and sexual harassment policies were in place to help deal with these issues.

Independent providers

The review also investigated how independent and technical and further education (TAFE) higher education providers were tackling sexual assault and sexual harassment. The analysis showed significant work in those sectors was still required.

“TEQSA has begun ensuring the measures reported are being effectively implemented, with student well-being and safety standards now assessed during all applications [from the institutions] for renewal of registration,” McClaran said.

“And so are the handling of complaints regarding providers’ responses to grievances in cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment. These are now the responsibility of a new, dedicated compliance and investigations team.”

The agency’s report presents an analysis of responses made to TEQSA by Australian higher education providers to outline how they were addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment in their operations.

The analysis found that all universities now offered counselling services to victims of sexual assault or harassment, and that they also reported incidents internally.

All but 5% of the institutions had adopted the recommendations of the Change the Course report and all had set up sexual assault/sexual harassment taskforces. All but three universities had collaborated with an external sexual assault counselling service provider.

The report says the response from 126 independent and TAFE higher education providers to the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment was not as comprehensive as that of the universities.

But the group’s peak bodies were committed to working with TEQSA “to support their members to respond to the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment”, it states.

Universities’ response

Chief Executive of Universities Australia Catriona Jackson said sexual assault and sexual harassment were global and society-wide challenges – and Australian universities had taken a strong and proactive stance against unacceptable behaviours.

“In this report, TEQSA acknowledges the comprehensive programme led by Universities Australia and our 39 member universities, violence prevention experts and students to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment in student communities and in wider society,” Jackson said.

“Universities and their frontline staff have been working to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault for decades,” she said.

“Through Universities Australia’s 'Respect. Now. Always.' initiative, all 39 of our universities came together three years ago to send a very clear message about student and staff conduct and respectful relationships, and to contribute to a global movement against sexual violence.”

Jackson said that since August 2017, more than 800 further major actions and initiatives had been instigated by Australian universities. These included enhancing student support services, university policies and prevention programmes.

“Nationally, this work is guided by representatives of our 39 member universities, and locally by a dedicated expert-informed committee at each university,” she said.

“This comprehensive and collective effort has been driven by the university sector in a world-leading initiative that other nations have followed closely.”

As part of the 'Respect. Now. Always.' initiative, Universities Australia had also launched a 10-point action plan “to lead the sector’s next stages of work on this important issue”.

Six of the 10 actions had been completed, with the other four well under way.

Jackson said that student safety was the highest priority: “While we have made major gains, this work doesn’t stop and universities have made a long-term commitment to it.

“Every student has the right to feel safe. Every student should be safe.”