The 2021 National Student Safety Survey findings were recently released and documented the unacceptable and continued prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault experienced by university students, since the first national survey conducted in 2016 by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Postgraduates Association (NATSIPA) acknowledge the apology made to “every single university student who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault”, made by Professor John Dewar AO, Universities Australia (UA) Chair, on behalf of UA and its 39 university members.
One in five (21.3%) females had experienced sexual harassment in a university context compared with 7.6% of males. Since starting at university, 4.2% of undergraduate students had been sexually assaulted compared with 4.8% of postgraduate coursework students and 5.7% of postgraduate research students.
Between 25-40% of gender-diverse students had been sexually harassed in a university context. Between 22-40% of sexuality-diverse students had been sexually harassed in a university context, compared with 13% of heterosexual students. One in three (29.1%) students with a disability had been sexually harassed in a university context, compared with 13.5% of other students.
The report found that Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students are more likely to be sexually harassed in a university context than any other students. In fact, the study found that one in five (21.4%) Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students had been sexually harassed in a university context compared to 16% of students who did not identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. In addition, one in eight (12.0%) Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students had been sexually harassed in a university context in the past 12 months compared with 8.0% of other students. “How can we ever ‘Close the Gap’ on educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with statistics like this,” said Dr Sharlene Leroy-Dyer, President of NATSIPA.
Sexual assault and sexual harassment are being disproportionately experienced by university students who identify as being one or more of the following: women, postgraduates, gender-diverse, sexuality-diverse, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, or have a disability.
The perpetrators of 84% of sexual harassment in a university context, and 85.7% of sexual assault in a university context, were males.
CAPA and NATSIPA recognise that Australian universities have implemented hundreds of initiatives since the 2016 national survey to prevent and better respond to assault and harassment. Despite these efforts, sexual assault and sexual harassment of students remains prevalent and is still largely a gender-based issue, with complex intersectionality and marginalisation factors, which allows for a culture to exist where university spaces are unsafe spaces for our most vulnerable students.
Some of this problematic culture subsists in university workplaces, where postgraduate research students were 22.3% more likely than other students to be sexually harassed by a university staff member, including lecturers, tutors, and research supervisors.
CAPA and NATSIPA call on the Federal Government to adequately resource Australian universities so they can continue and strengthen their response and prevention strategies. Emphasis needs to be placed on evidence-based training for all staff and students that addresses the drivers of gender-based violence, as recommended in the 2020 Respect@Work Report by the AHRC on sexual harassment in the workplace. Smaller and regional universities that may not have the resources to deliver such training should receive additional Federal Government funding.
University spaces are now increasingly online spaces, with the continuation of blended and flexible learning options. Slightly more than one in ten students had been sexually harassed in the past 12 months in a university online space. Continuing to increase awareness of and improve reporting and support pathways for students who have experienced sexual assault and/or sexual harassment, are important initiatives deserving increased funding and prioritisation by university leadership.
“Sexual assault and sexual harassment of students in university spaces is unacceptable”, said Errol Phuah, CAPA National President. “It’s particularly important for men to acknowledge that this is a men’s issue that we have a big role in fixing”, he said. “I call on my fellow male student leaders to complete the training, do the work, and have the tough conversations. We are not looking to take something away from men; we are asking for cooperation towards changing the attitude. It is our shared responsibility to help create the cultural change needed to make university spaces safe and inclusive for everyone”.
Acting NATSIPA National President Dr Sharlene Leroy-Dyer
M: 0417 239 909
CAPA National President Errol Phuah
M: 0431 545 167