University processes ‘exacerbate impacts’ of sexual assault

Australian sector denies accusations of inadequate support, but says it can never do ‘enough’

September 11, 2023
A man puts his hand over a woman's mouth
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Students subjected to sexual assault suffer the “snowball effect” of inadequate support as they endure legal cases that can last for years, an Australian Senate committee has heard.

Sharna Bremner, director of End Rape on Campus (Eroc) Australia, criticised universities’ failure to provide “interim safety measures” during sexual assault investigations.

Ms Bremner said that, although there had been considerable research into the prevalence of sexual abuse at Australian universities, there was “no robust data” on victims’ educational outcomes. She said the people assisted by Eroc often failed subjects after their attacks.

“Too often we have seen that the students impacted by sexual harm are the ones who are forced to remove themselves from campus to keep themselves safe,” she told the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into a bill enacting the Universities Accord panel’s priority recommendations.

Ms Bremner said assault victims who persisted with their studies faced “extremely long wait times” to access counsellors or academic support officers – a problem that had “worsened” since the pandemic.

“When [students] eventually get through, they’re often asked to provide medical documentation every semester to prove the functional impact [of] things like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] or anxiety…following an assault. You’ve got this kind of snowball effect where every process is hindering a student’s ability to heal and…complete their degree.”

She said university processes should help students more during lengthy legal cases. “The criminal justice system can’t get you an extension on an assignment that’s due. It can’t get you alternative exam processes if you find that you’re overcome with PTSD. It can’t critically change that class for you, if you happen to be sitting in the same lecture theatre as the person who assaulted you.”

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil said there were “no wait times for counselling” at her institution, which offered a “trauma-informed” approach to reporting, a round-the-clock reporting line, an online module in respect, a free “SafeZone” app and mandatory consent and bystander training for university clubs’ staff.

Professor Sheil said QUT had increased its security, lighting and emergency call points and introduced a night shuttle bus to take students to their residences or public transport connections.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said most institutions offered similar services. The sector had rolled out policy revision frameworks and intervention guides this year, and had committed to “safety on campus” activities and a nationwide survey next year.

Ms Jackson acknowledged universities’ “special responsibility” as places with “a very large population of 18 to 25-year-old women. Unfortunately, that is the target group for sexual assault and sexual harassment. This is a hard space…that requires considerable continued effort. No matter how much work we do, it’s never enough.”

Ms Bremner said universities had failed to implement “bare minimum standards” such as background checks on staff and better scrutiny of university residences. “We have less oversight of residences than we do of universities,” she told the hearing.

“Most sexual assaults aren’t happening in the library. They’re not happening at a public bus stop. They’re happening in residences [and] private homes. They’re happening at parties and clubs and events. We would really like to see…evidence-based prevention initiatives in addition to improved responses to students who are reporting. Without both of those things happening, we’re not going to get very far.”

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