By Alicia D’Arcy, Features Sub-Editor
CW: sexual assault, sexual harassment
Today, the Australian Human Rights Commission released the Change the Course report into sexual harassment and sexual assault at universities.
Since management of all 39 Australian universities had access to this report a week in advance, they had time to develop a ten point plan in order to respond to its findings. The plan can be found in full here.
The key policies of the plan are that the universities will develop an evidence-based, respectful relationships program for university students and will implement new specialist training, developed by the Australian Psychological Society, for university councillors.
Universities will also provide broader availability for first responder training for university staff and residential colleges. They will also provide access to training about prevention and responses to sexual harassment and sexual assault for university staff.
A best practice guideline to support universities to respond to reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment will also be developed, as will new principles regarding student-staff interaction for postgraduate students specifically.
The Respect. Now. Always. awareness campaign will be continued, as will a 24/7 national support line for the duration of this semester.
Lizzie Butterworth, Women’s Officer for the UNSW Student Representative Council, has emphasised the need for continued commitment towards implementation of these policies.
“The 10 point action plan designed by Universities Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission echoes recommendations that student representatives and survivors have been advocating for decades,” she said.
“Whilst these are a positive first step they must go beyond the tokenism of the Respect. Now. Always. Campaign and must continue well after media attention has gone away.
“We look forward to the extensive recommendations that will be made in the Australian Human Rights Centre’s report, being released on August 3rd, and hope that these will be used to shape university policy.”
What is striking about all of these policies is that nothing is particularly concrete.
The training programs are still in the process of being “developed”, with no indication of when they will be ready. We are told that there are “guidelines”, instead of compulsory procedures.
We have no information about whether, once developed, these programs will be mandatory for all students and staff. They are merely being made “available”, with no indication as to how many people these programs will be made available to.
We do not know how much funding universities have committed to this action plan, if any.
We do not know what the disciplinary consequences are for perpetrators of sexual assault. This is particularly relevant if universities want to actually achieve a meaningful deterrent and punishment effect, something that they are more than willing to follow through with for mere academic misconduct.
We do not know whether universities have committed to maintaining accurate and comprehensive records of any reporting that does occur.
We do not know if the national support line will continue after this semester. And we do not know whether, once the support line service stops, the new policies and programs will be enough to fill that gap.
The thing is, universities have known about the existence of sexual harassment and sexual assault on university campuses for a very long time.
The National Union of Students’ 2016 Talk About It survey made this very clear, indicating that 70% of respondents experienced a form of sexual harassment whilst studying.
Furthermore, the universities knew that the Australian Human Rights Commission has been compiling this report for all of this year. They knew that the results would not reflect well on them. They have had an embargoed copy of the report for the past week.
Professor Ian Jacobs, Vice-Chancellor of UNSW, has issued a statement in response to the release of the report.
“Clearly the pervasive issue of sexual violence and sexual harassment experienced in the broader community do not stop at the gates of a university campus. But while the problems of sexual violence and sexual harassment are not unique to universities, universities are uniquely placed to help address them.
Working together with students and our wider communities, universities have the potential to significantly influence behavioural change. Listening to our communities and using information from reports such as the one released today can inform our future actions, to develop and implement more effective response and prevention strategies.
UNSW supports all the recommendations made in the AHRC Report and notes that many of them reflect actions already taken by UNSW in this area.
I look forward to bringing you more news in the near future about our continued work to provide a safe, supportive, respectful and non-discriminatory environment for all our students and staff.”
These are nice words, and he is correct in saying that our university is uniquely placed to combat issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
However despite this, UNSW has provided a dearth of details and ongoing commitment to policies.
University management is very good at sounding like they care when media attention highlights their shortcomings. However, time and time again, it has been shown that they often do not follow through in a meaningful manner.
UNSW must provide students with a concrete timeline and information about how much funding they will be putting into developing and implementing these policies and this action plan. Victims’ pain and suffering have been overlooked and trivialised for long enough.
UNSW has been contacted for comment.
If you or someone you know are impacted by sexual assault or sexual harassment within university communities, you can call the National University Support Line on 1800 572 224 for free, confidential counselling 24 hours a day.