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Australian Universities Officially Have a Sexual Assault Problem

A landmark report released today lays bare the evidence of widespread sexual assault and harassment on our campuses.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (HRC) has this morning released a landmark report into sexual assault at Australian universities, noting the results "paint a concerning picture of the nature and prevalence" of sexual assault and harassment experienced by Australian university students. The report found 51 percent of students had been sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016, and that 6.9 percent of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016. It goes on to say a "significant proportion" of the sexual harassment experienced by students in 2015 and 2016 happened in university settings. This includes on the university campus itself, travelling to or from university, at an off-campus event (organised by or endorsed by the university), or at university employment.


Key findings:

  • LGBTI and Indigenous students, postgraduates, and students with disabilities experience sexual assault at a disproportionately higher rate than their peers
  • Assaults on postgraduate students by their supervisors were common
  • The proportion of men experiencing sexual assault at university was higher than expected, particularly for gay men

The survey, titled Change the Course: Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities, canvassed more than 30,000 university students from 39 universities around the country. It reveals Indigenous, LGBTI, and postgraduate university students—as well as students with disabilities—experience assault at disproportionately high rates. Most perpetrators were fellow students, and the commission received numerous accounts of women being assaulted by "close friend who they trusted."

Female students are three times more likely to experience sexual assault at universities, and two times more likely to be harassed than their male peers. However, trans and gender nonconforming students were found to experience sexual assault at higher rates than both.

Beyond the student survey, the HRC received 1,849 personal submissions, many from student survivors around the country. "I think this reflects the magnitude of the issue," Kate Jenkins said, "but also the appetite for change."

University residential colleges emerge as a key problem area, with alcohol consumption contributing to sexual assault at college—and at university social events more broadly. "Residential colleges are places where, as we saw in the report, things can go wrong," Kate Jenkins said, recounting the experience of one young woman who reported her sexual assault, only to be asked about her alcohol consumption habits and what steps she would take in the future to ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the wake of the report, the HRC has put forward nine recommendations, including urging universities to ensure students have access to specialist support. The Australian National University (ANU) took pre-emptive action on this last month, announcing it would be getting a on-campus sexual assault counsellor. With a huge number of students living on campus, ANU factors significantly in the report's findings.

In the lead up to Tuesday's report, Universities Australia launched a 24-hour assault support line for students, as part of its own 10-point plan to combat sexual assault on campus.

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