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The Universities Australia action plan was released on Tuesday. AAP/David Moir

Universities unveil plan to reduce sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus

Australian universities have announced a ten-point plan in response to the release of a national survey into sexual assault and harassment on university campuses, released on Tuesday by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The survey found:

  • 1.6% of student respondents reported they experienced sexual assault in a university setting (including public transport to and from university) in 2015 or 2016; and

  • 21% of respondents reported that they experienced some form of sexual harassment in a university setting (not including public transport to and from university) in 2016.

The survey was completed by more than 30,000 university students across all 39 Australian universities, and recevied more than 1,800 submissions.

Further reading: Universities have a problem with sexual assault and harassment: here’s how to fix it

“Almost one-third of sexual harassment reported in the survey occurred on university grounds or in teaching spaces, while one in five of those who were sexually assaulted said that this occurred at a university or residence social event,” Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said.

“We found that colleges are a particular area of concern, particularly for women who were four times as likely as men to have been sexually assaulted in this setting.”

Across all university settings, the commission found that women were three times as likely as men to be sexually assaulted in 2015 or 2016 and almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016. Most perpetrators were fellow students known to them.

“While anybody can experience sexual assault or sexual harassment, it is clear from the data that women at university experience these behaviours at disproportionately higher rates than men,” Jenkins said.

“This adds weight to the body of evidence that highlights disturbing rates of sexual violence against women in Australia.”

Trans and gender-diverse students had higher rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The chairwoman of Universities Australia, professor Margaret Gardner, spoke directly to the victims: “Sexual assault is a crime. It is not your fault.”

“We send a strong and clear message today that these behaviours are not acceptable. Not on our campuses – and not in Australian society,” she said.

“The ten major initiatives we announce today signal our resolve to ensure our students study and live in a safe and respectful culture, and to ensure that students who experience and report unacceptable behaviour receive the right response of compassion, care and support.”

The ten initiatives are:

  • the development of an evidence-based respectful relationships program for university students;

  • new specialist training developed by the Australian Psychological Society to extend the skills of university counsellors to support victims and survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment;

  • a 24/7 national interim support line offering specialist support for students, operated by Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, to supplement university services;

  • broader availability of first-responder training for university staff;

  • new training for university staff and leaders about prevention and responses to sexual harassment and sexual assault;

  • working with Universities Colleges Australia to provide access to firstresponder training for residential colleges and halls of residence, and to take their own action to support students in a compassionate and timely way;

  • the development of best-practice guidelines to support universities to respond to reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment;

  • new principles on postgraduate student-staff interaction

  • a commitment to continue the Respect. Now. Always. awareness campaign; and

  • undertaking a follow-up student survey to assess progress and inform ongoing action.

Queensland University of Technology associate professor Michael Flood said Universities Australia’s plan included promising moves towards the primary prevention of sexual assault and harassment, including the development of a best-practice respectful relationships program for students and an extension of the Respect. Now. Always awareness campaign.

However, he said universities would need to do more if they were to make a real difference to levels of violence among staff and students, and should extend their attention to other important forms of violence including dating and partner violence.

“Universities need to adopt comprehensive prevention approaches, based in long-term funding and senior leadership, and introduce multi-session, interactive, professionally facilitated education programs into all students’ experience of campus life,” Flood said.

In addition, Australian universities will take specific local action to build on initiatives already in place. “We have a shared commitment with our students and staff to do more, and better, to ensure every student is safe and can study in a society and a university community where respect is paramount,” Gardner said.

“This is our contribution to an important, ongoing national conversation about how we prevent and address sexual harassment and sexual assault within Australian society.”

If you are in need of support, call the national university support line on 1800 572 224 (in place until November 30, 2017).

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