MPs demand ‘task force’ to oversee handling of campus assaults

Self-regulation is ‘failing’, Australian critics claim, citing sexual assault statistics mirroring those in wider society

August 4, 2023
Sexual assault protest
Source: iStock

Australian parliamentarians want an independent task force to police universities’ handling of sexual violence, amid suggestions that hundreds of people are being assaulted on campus every week.

Independent politicians have joined students and advocacy groups in demanding the new body, according to the ABC. “The task force is needed because the action that the students and these brave young women are asking for is just not being taken,” Sydney-based MP Allegra Spender told the broadcaster.

“All of us women who have attended tertiary facilities in Australia know someone who has been raped while at university,” her Victorian counterpart Monique Ryan added.

Education minister Jason Clare, who on 3 August introduced a bill to implement recommendations from the Universities Accord, told parliament that universities’ work to address sexual violence had “not been good enough”. Women in university residential colleges had been “blocked” in their efforts to improve sexual assault complaints processes, he said.

Mr Clare said a working group being set up to advise education ministers on student safety would include an expert on managing sexual abuse. The group would consult lobby organisations including End Rape on Campus and Fair Agenda, which have jointly proposed an “independent, expert-led accountability and oversight mechanism” to address sexual violence “in university contexts”.

“Such a body is necessary to achieve meaningful improvements to student safety,” the two organisations explained in a submission to the accord. “Universities have claimed to be treating this as a priority, while still actively perpetuating harm.”

The Australian Greens have also backed the proposal. “The current system of self-regulation is…causing lasting harm to so many people,” said education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi. Fellow Greens senator Larissa Waters said universities had a “clear responsibility” to provide a safe environment. “With 275 sexual assaults in a university setting each week, it’s clear they are failing.”

The claim of 275 weekly assaults, which has been widely reported, is extrapolated from a statistic in a 2022 report commissioned by Universities Australia (UA). The authors surveyed almost 44,000 students and found that 1.1 per cent had been sexually assaulted “in an Australian university context” over 12 months.

Overall, about 31 per cent said they had been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, with 5 per cent saying the attacks had occurred “in a university context” – a definition encompassing not only campuses and university facilities but anywhere else where students mix with each other, including private homes and off-campus bars.

Such figures broadly reflect nationwide data on sexual violence. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) says about 20 per cent of women and 5 per cent of men experience sexual assault during their lifetimes. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) says women aged between 18 and 24 – a dominant university demographic – face sexual violence at over twice the national rate.

In a statement, UA chair David Lloyd and chief executive Catriona Jackson described sexual harm as a “major societal issue”. They said universities, governments, businesses, schools and individuals all had a responsibility to “help stop the scourge – a responsibility we don’t shy away from”.

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said a 2017 study by the AHRC had also found that rates of sexual assault in universities mirrored those reported by the ABS. “[Students are] not at any more or less risk than the general population,” he said.

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