A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Unis, residential colleges ditch plans for sharing data on campus sex assaults

Leaders of Australia’s top universities and their residential colleges have quietly shelved attempts to collect and share data about sexual assaults on their campuses.

Words by Kate Stanton
 

Educators and women’s rights advocates agree that more comprehensive data would help universities test their anti-sexual harassment policies and programs.

But action has stalled, three years after the universities and leaders at Australia’s top military academy first met to discuss potential nationwide surveys on campus sexual assault.

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The surveys were recommended by a 2011 review into the treatment of women at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, following a scandal at the academy in which a male cadet secretly live-streamed Skype video of himself having sex with a female cadet.

The Human Rights Commission’s Alexandra Shehadie, who was part of the review and its subsequent audit, said it was “disappointing” that the undertaking failed to gain traction.

Ms Shehadie said that the review team recommended that Group of Eight residential colleges take the lead on applying ADFA’s “Unacceptable Behaviour Survey” to colleges and universities around the country.

“That was met with quite a lot of resistance,” she told The Citizen.

Ms Shehadie attributed the colleges’ reluctance to their fear of media repercussions.    

“I think they were worried about what it might disclose, how they would manage,” she said.

Australia National University was the only Group of Eight institution to commit to surveying its colleges by mid-2013, according to the audit.

An ANU spokesperson told The Citizen that it had “not been able to confirm the timing” mentioned in the report. The spokesperson stressed that ANU provided sexual assault response training and support to staff and residents of the university’s colleges, but did not elaborate on any plans to conduct a survey.

Damian Powell, a member of the Broderick review team and principal at the University of Melbourne’s Janet Clarke Hall, echoed Ms Shehadie’s concern.

“There was a whole lot of well-meaning objection,” Powell said of several meetings of university and college leaders in 2011 and 2012. “But I think some of those objections were based on perception of reputational risk.”

“The honest answer is it was put in the ‘too hard’ basket,” he added.

Dr Powell is also in charge of anti-assault and bullying policies across most of Melbourne’s residential colleges.

He stressed the need for more data on campus sexual assault.

“I think data is power,” he said. “You really need to understand the data and understand what’s going on.”

“There was a whole lot of well-meaning objection. But I think some of those objections were based on perception of reputational risk . . . The honest answer is it was put in the ‘too hard’ basket.” — Damian Powell, Janet Clarke Hall

But up-to-date data appears hard to come by. University contacts interviewed by The Citizen cited a 2011 online survey of 1500 women by the National Union of Students. The survey found that 67 per cent of respondents had an unwanted sexual experience while at university. About 17 per cent said they had been raped.

Both Ms Shehadie and Dr Powell said Australia needed more comprehensive data collection than the NUS’s online survey.

Experts also warned that data or surveys are still unlikely to paint a complete picture of the problem. Statistically representative data can be difficult to obtain because so many incidences of sexual assault go unreported and because victims often play down the seriousness of the crime.

Anastasia Powell, an RMIT lecturer who studies policy regarding violence against women, said young people were most likely to be both victims and perpetrators of sexual violence. In her research on university students, Dr Powell said she found that young men and women had a “very problematic understanding of consent.” 

Dr Damian Powell, of Janet Clarke Hall, said that universities and residential colleges had a genuine interest in combating sexual assault, and emphasised the “wonderful” work that educational leaders had done to develop cultures of inclusion and respect.

A 2011 online survey of 1500 women by the National Union of Students . . . found that 67 per cent of respondents had an unwanted sexual experience while at university. About 17 per cent said they had been raped.

Many colleges run rigorous educational and safety programs for staff, students and student leaders, while some also conduct internal surveys to measure the effectiveness of their own policies.

“I would certainly welcome data,” said Campbell Bairstow, Provost of Trinity College, which neighbours Janet Clarke Hall. “Don’t have any concern about it.”

“Within our college we have an annual anonymous student survey where people can report around areas like safety. So at least we take the temperature.”

He added: “So I don’t think we’re afraid of that conversation. I think what we all want to do is be as good as we can at something which is imperfect.”

But Dr Powell warned against further inaction.

“There’s a danger that we all go back into our silos and that we don’t keep learning from each other,” he said. “We should be putting this at the front of our common agenda.”

Dr Powell said the move for more comprehensive data around sexual assault needed a champion at the most senior level, noting that much of the movement was driven by ADFA and the Broderick review.  

Part of the problem is that universities often have little control over their colleges and halls. Unlike ADFA, there are dozens of individual institutions that operate independently of the university.

“It’s an absolute labyrinth,” Dr Powell said.  Most university and residential college representatives who attended forums where Broderick’s recommendations were discussed weren’t powerful enough to “sign off” on a nationwide survey agreement.

“Within our college we have an annual anonymous student survey where people can report around areas like safety. So at least we take the temperature . . . So I don’t think we’re afraid of that conversation. I think what we all want to do is be as good as we can at something which is imperfect.” — Campbell Bairstow, Trinity College

Ms Shehadie said that universities had shifted responsibility over proposed surveys to their colleges.

“They have kind of put their heads in the sand,” she said.

However, a spokesperson for Universities Australia told The Citizen that Australian universities were “aware of ongoing work” commissioned by the Broderick review.

“Universities Australia’s members have very comprehensive strategies in place covering issues such as travelling to and from campus, sexual ethics and assault, drug and alcohol abuse,” the spokesperson said in an emailed response. “Our members are all very committed to student safety and ensuring a positive experience for all students.”

In the United States, where more than 80 schools are under federal investigation for their insufficient response to rape and assault on their campuses, advocates are calling for review of university policies on sexual assault. 

Emma Sulkowicz, an art student at Columbia University in New York, has spent the last two months carrying the mattress on which she says she was raped by a fellow student, in protest of the university’s inaction on campus assaults.  

Australia’s university system is much smaller than America’s behemoth institutions. But every year, young men and women move into Australia’s residential colleges – often their first experience living away from home with members of the opposite sex — and little is known about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

Dr Powell said it was only a matter of time before the issue makes headlines again in Australia.

“To me, it’s a little bit of unfinished business from Broderick,” he said. 

► If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.

► An edited version of this story was also published in The Sunday Age

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