Students to get greater rights over uni sexual assaults

Dominic Giannini |

Education ministers have ticked off on a student ombudsman to oversee sexual assault cases.
Education ministers have ticked off on a student ombudsman to oversee sexual assault cases.

Protections for university students who have experienced sexual harassment or assault will be strengthened after a scathing report uncovered widespread horrific experiences on campus.

Education ministers ticked off on an action plan to tackle gender-based violence at universities when they met in Melbourne on Friday.

It includes a new watchdog that will oversee how universities handle complaints about sexual assaults and harassment as well as push universities to strengthen student safety. 

The independent ombudsman will allow higher education students to escalate complaints about the actions of their provider, including complaints about sexual harassment, assault and violence.

University assaults
One in six students say they have experienced sexual harassment and one in 20 sexual assault. (Paul Miller/AAP PHOTOS)

It will be able to consider whether decisions and actions taken by universities are unreasonable, unjust, oppressive or discriminatory and respond to complaints if there are delays.

The ombudsman will be able to recommend the university take steps to resolve the complaint or share information with relevant regulators.

It will offer a restorative engagement process, whereby a person who has disclosed a sexual assault meets senior leaders of the institution to tell their story, including details about the abuse and the impact it’s had.

But it won’t be responsible for investigation complaints relating to academic decisions, employees of higher education providers or administrative actions regarding employment.

Our Watch acting CEO Cara Gleeson branded the initiative a game changer, saying it would drive the cultural change needed to tackle gender-based violence.

One in six students have experienced sexual harassment and one in 20 have experienced sexual assault, which was why it was important to have a safety net for people to feel safe and protected at their institutions, she said.

“What we’ve heard from victim-survivors is students who do come forward to their university can feel like they are not safe after they report it and can be re-traumatised,” she told AAP.

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare
Jason Clare said not enough had been done to tackle sexual violence in universities. (Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS)

The National Tertiary Education Union also welcomed the announcement, saying action was needed to address crisis levels of sexual harassment and assault on campus. 

“(The plan) has the potential to make an enormous difference to the insidious scourge of sexual harassment at universities,”  national president Alison Barne said.

Universities Australia welcomed the ombudsman, saying its members were committed to delivering the best experience for students.

“As a sector, we have not shied away from dealing with this major issue, but we can do more,” CEO Luke Sheehy said.

Legislation will be prepared to put the reform in place. Accountability and transparency will also be bolstered.

A national code for higher education providers to prevent and respond to gender-based violence will also be created.

Independent student accommodation providers will also be covered by the national code.

This was a welcomed step as it showed each institution had to play its role to tackle gender-based violence on a societal level, Ms Gleeson said. 

“Every student has a right to feel and be safe where they are living,” she said. 

“We need everyone to be doing their part … to address violence.

“It’s beyond universities, it includes primary schools and secondary schools and VET institutions and workplaces.”

Dr Fiona Martin
Psychologist Fiona Martin says younger people need more education on the use of digital platforms. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

Consent education needed to be integrated at all levels of education and respectful relationships should be covered as well, Dr Fiona Martin said.

“It should be across the lifespan of education from early learning right through to universities – it shouldn’t just be schools,” the child psychologist told AAP.

A parliamentary inquiry found the university sector failed to adequately respond to sexual assaults with victim-survivors saying the follow-up process could be worse than the rape.

Parliamentarians from all sides of politics said they had lost faith in unis being able to fix the problem without independent oversight. 

Not enough had been done to tackle sexual violence in universities, federal Education Minister Jason Clare said. 

“For too long students haven’t been heard, that now changes,” he said. 

Lifeline 13 11 14

Fullstop Australia 1800 385 578

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028

AAP