Australia’s elite colleges are reeling today in the wake of a new report accusing them of fostering a culture “where older students can exploit and abuse younger students, both for sexual as well as simply sadistic purposes.”
The Red Zone Report, released Monday by activist group End Rape on Campus (EROC) is the culmination of 18 months of investigations into college culture at Australia’s top universities. In graphic detail, the report outlines dozens of incidents of abuse, hazing, and sexual assault at colleges around Australia.
“Freshers and other students who attempt to speak out against the abuse are often ostracised,” the report alleges. “And, in one case contained within this report, were gang raped as punishment.”
EROC’s report comes after two other investigations into sexual assault and harassment on Australian university campuses were released in 2017. The first was from the Human Rights Commission, which looked at universities more broadly. Then came Cultural Renewal at the University of Sydney Residential Colleges, which has come to be known as the Broderick Report, zeroing in on the culture at elite private colleges.
"Both of those reports were being funded by the very groups that were being investigated… This is the first financially independent report," Red Zone author and Walkley Award-winning journalist Nina Funnell told VICE. "The HRC received $1 million from universities. The Broderick Report was funded by the universities and the colleges… It’s the same as if the Royal Commission [into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse] was funded by George Pell."
READ: The Red Zone Report by End Rape on Campus Australia
"In terms of the Broderick Report… It was basically a PR campaign for the colleges," says Jessica Syed, Women's Officer at the University of Sydney. "There was no context given for why the report was released. There were no interviews with former college residents… This report [the Red Zone], coming from someone like Nina Funnell and Anna Hush… it's been very important for them to demonstrate the culture at these colleges."
And that culture, laid out in the pages of the Red Zone, appears mired in toxic traditions that target women and younger residents. Brutal hazing seems commonplace, such as the accusation that residents of St John's college at the University of Sydney locked first year students in bathrooms at the college and dumped vats of dead fish on them. Or at Evatt College at the University of New England, where the Red Zone alleges residents are made to take part in the "Throwie Cup"—a initiation ritual that sees students race to finish 24 beers, and have to drink their own vomit if they throw up to stay in the competition.
Evatt College is also home to a practice known as "birdbathing." Essentially, freshman are made to kneel down and drink beer out of the scrotum of senior classmates. Funnell unearthed footage of the bizarre tradition, and many others that take place behind the gates of these prestigious colleges, which can cost upwards of $30,000 a year to live in.
The report also outlines scores of accusations of sexual assault occurring on college grounds, and recounts serious lapses in how some colleges have handled these. "When assaults were reported, they were generally not handled well," Funnell said. "The victim often felt that they were being blamed, or the victim was discouraged from making formal complaints… I've heard stories of victims being pulled up in front of a tribunal included one of their peers who gets to hear both sides of the story."
Funnell says that when handling assault claims internally, most colleges fail to punish the accused adequately. "Sometimes it's a $55 fine. Or eight hours community service, or they have to write letter of apology to the victim. A $55 fine is lower than the cost of a parking ticket on campus."
But the Red Zone's decision to group sexual assault in with hazing and other college rituals has raised some eyebrows. "The question I keep getting asked is: Why are you grouping these things together?" Funnell said. "The common link between sexual assault and hazing is that it’s about abuse of power. It’s about degradation of another person. It’s about forcing something on another person that’s without their consent… If you have a culture where you have hazing, I think you are more likely to have sexual assault."
In total, the Red Zone outlines 10 recommendations its authors believe colleges, universities, and state and federal politicians need to take to fix the problem inside Australia's colleges. For Syed's part, she is focusing on consent training and pushing Sydney Uni to roll out training that's mandatory and proven to actually work.
"Right now, Sydney Uni is using Consent Matters, a UK-based [consent training,] which is rolling out from Monday when O week starts," she said. Syed and her fellow Women's Officer, Madeline Ward, would rather they uni go with Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia's "Sex and Ethics Training." As Syed explains, the course is designed for an Australian context, is evidence based, and won't retraumatise students who've been assaulted.
But as Funnell has learned reporting on Australia's prestigious colleges for years, and teaching at the University of Sydney before that, change can be slow, if it's even possible. "I’ve spent literally 10 years trying to get a review of the Sydney Uni colleges," she said. "I don't think this report in isolation will trigger reform. I hope it will wake people up. Hopefully politicians will see this situation and take more action."
And as for the college residents themselves? Funnell says there are always the students who are grateful someone is investigative what's really happening inside college. But then there are the real "college diehards" who aren't shy to retaliate. In the lead up to the report's release, EROC was already receiving emails from angry collegians that don't believe there's a problem with college culture.
"We will get rape threats and death threats," Funnell says. "For sure."