End Rape on Campus Australia has called on universities to do more to stop sexual assault and harassment on campus after the publication of the long-awaited human rights report.
Last month the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) national report, Change the Course, revealed more than half of all university students had been harassed at least once last year.
But End Rape on Campus Australia founder and directer Sharna Bremner is encouraging universities and students to look at more than just the numbers.
“Are survivors supported, both academically and emotionally? What penalties are handed down to perpetrators? Which universities expel perpetrators? Without that kind of information, it’s hard to determine whether one university is ‘safer’ than another,” Ms Bremner said.
Ms Bremner also urges universities to consider that fewer reports of sexual assault and harassment are not necessarily a good thing.
She says in some ways universities with higher official report rates could actually be doing something right.
“Higher numbers of reports likely means that students know how to report and feel more comfortable coming forward” she said.
“Anytime a university tries to make sexual assault or harassment look less prevalent at their institution, it actually raises a huge red flag.”
The Commission provided universities with institutional-level data as part of their investigation, but did not include each university’s specific data in the 254 page report.
End Rape on Campus Australia, as well as other advocacy groups, lobbied for the universities to publicly release their own institutional data.
Ms Bremner believes students have a right to have all of the available information so that they can make an informed decision about which institution they attend.
But she also says universities with lower numbers, whether survey results or official reports, should not automatically be deemed ‘safer’.
She suggests instead of making a decision based from prevalence rates, students should consider how universities are responding to reports that they do get.
Sex Commissioner Kate Jenkins said that although the AHRC’s goal was not to directly compare universities, she recognised that there is “acute public interest in knowing the rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment at an institutional level”.
For that reason the AHRC also encouraged Vice-Chancellors to release their individual data publicly.
All 39 universities agreed to do so and have now all published their institution’s data on their own websites.
“This is a positive sign of their preparedness to be transparent about their results and their commitment to taking action in response to our national report,” Ms Jenkins said.
Ms Bremner supports the report’s intentions, but has not shied away from voicing her concerns, especially regarding Universities Australia‘s involvement.
Universities, through their peak body Universities Australia, contributed $950,000 of funding to conduct the survey.
Bremner said she repeatedly raised this issue with the AHRC.
“If tobacco companies donated almost $1 million to research about smoking-related diseases, we’d definitely be asking questions and to me, this isn’t any different,” Ms Bremner said.
The Hunting Ground Australia Project also provided $150,000 in seed funding to conduct the national survey, but the bulk of the funding was given by universities.
Despite the universities’ involvement, Ms Bremner believes the report will make universities listen and act.
“In the past, when the focus has been on individual stories, universities have easily swept it under the rug. The report and the following media coverage means they can’t do that anymore,” she said.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the universities, it’s that their reputations matter to them, above all else.”
The Commission recommended that universities engage an independent body to conduct the national survey again at three yearly intervals to track progress in reducing the prevalence of these incidents.
Universities Australia have confirmed that the national survey will be undertaken again in 3 years.
Universities have also united to release a 10-point action plan.