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‘More work must be done to prevent this abhorrent behaviour’

Following the release of a damning survey from Universities Australia that revealed high numbers of sexual assaults, a number of universities have pledged to do better when it comes to the safety of their students.

user iconLauren Croft 04 April 2022 Big Law
‘More work must be done to prevent this abhorrent behaviour’
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Late last year, Universities Australia surveyed over 43,000 students across 39 universities on their experiences of sexual harassment and assault in a National Student Safety Survey, released in late March this year.

The results of the survey were subsequently called “distressing, disappointing and confronting” by Universities Australia chair John Dewar – and revealed that one in six students had been sexually harassed since starting university and one in 20 had been assaulted. Moreover, one in 100 students had been sexually assaulted in the last 12 months – figures which Australian National University (ANU) vice-chancellor and president Professor Brian P. Schmidt AC called “unacceptable” in an email to students last week.

“These results show a rate of sexual assault and sexual harassment that is unacceptable.


Every member of our community deserves to feel safe and respected. This is what I committed to when I became vice-chancellor. And these results strengthen my resolve to make our community safer,” he wrote.

“The survey results show that, like the rest of society, our campus is still grappling with the scourge of sexual violence. [The survey] results are painful and deeply disappointing for our community. And my thoughts are with victim-survivors, their loved ones and the dedicated professionals and advocates who work so hard to support them.”

Of the 1,600 ANU survey respondents, 26.1 per cent reported being sexually assaulted during their time at university – and although this number is twice the national average, Professor Schmidt said that the university was continually working on solutions like an ANU Student Safety and Wellbeing Plan and mandatory consent training for students.

In addition, the report found that pansexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian students were more likely to have experienced sexual assault, as well as those with a disability.

Within Bond University, 13.2 per cent of the 452 students surveyed reported being sexually assaulted since starting university – something which the university said it was “deeply sorry” about in a statement.

“Since the last national survey conducted in 2016, Bond has undertaken education campaigns, increased student support services, overhauled reporting mechanisms, and reviewed and revised its policies. Despite our efforts, these data show that we have not made as much progress as we thought we had on reducing incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” a spokesperson said.

“We will take the information from these results, learn from it, and develop strategies to change behaviour, encourage survivors to report incidents and access support, and target unacceptable behaviour such that perpetrators cannot hide.

At James Cook University, 9.5 per cent of students reported being sexually assaulted; and after first releasing their Statement of Commitment to the Elimination of Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault in 2018, JCU vice-chancellor Simon Biggs said the university is determined to rid its establishment of violence and harassment.

“Any incident of sexual assault or sexual harassment is one too many. This survey is an important step in understanding our students’ experiences and how we can better support them. We want a safe community – every student and staff member has a right to feel safe,” he said.  

“We know our interventions are working, we have done a lot but there is always more to do. Clearly sexual harassment and sexual assault is an issue across the community, and this is reflected on our campuses.  Addressing this takes sustained and collective action.”

At the University of New England, 7.6 per cent of students reported experiencing sexual assault in their time at the campus. Vice-chancellor and chief executive Professor Brigid Heywood said that this issue remains “critically important” – and is something UNE has been continually working on.

“In 2017, the Australian Human Rights Commission ‘Change the Course’ report on sexual assault and sexual harassment in a university setting made nine recommendations. UNE has addressed all nine. This included educating students on the responsible use of alcohol and the nurturing of respectful relationships, a shared dialogue with students about rejecting hazing in all forms, auditing and enhancing policies and procedures, and boosting communication with and engagement with students.

“In 2018 UNE invited the Australian Human Rights Commission to undertake a thorough review of the culture in our residential system. To date all but five of their 28 recommendations have been fully implemented,” she said.

“In 2022, the journey continues with a renewed focus on safer communities. We will use the umbrella of the newly formed Armidale Safety Alliance, the voice of the Student Consultative Committee and the outcomes of a comprehensive independent review of the UNE colleges model to guide us. I know we need to do more, and we will do it.”

Following the release of the report, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said that whilst universities have continued to implement new initiatives and measures, “more work must be done to prevent this abhorrent behaviour and eliminate the destructive attitudes that foster and excuse it”.

“As the peak body, Universities Australia has leant on expert voices, renewed partnerships and committed to a range of initiatives to compassionately support victim-survivors, university staff, student leaders and students themselves.

“In the lead up to the release of the survey results, we provided additional training for student leaders to respond to disclosures of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and to manage vicarious trauma. More training will continue over the coming weeks,” she said.

“Our institutions must set the tone for the behaviours expected of – and culture expected by – future students. To achieve this, we are also working with the Department of Social Services to develop a primary prevention campaign to be rolled out across university campuses in O-Week 2023.”