A statement from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins:
Sexual harassment and sexual assault remain far too prevalent in the Australian community. Women, young people and intersectional groups face unacceptably higher risk of this conduct at home, at work, online and in education, including in universities.
The Australian university sector took a leadership position when it came together and engaged the Australian Human Rights Commission to conduct a national survey of university students in 2016. Our survey results were published in the 2017 Change the Course report which made nine key recommendations, including that the survey be repeated in three years.
Today’s release of the 2021 National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) Report makes it clear that sexual harassment and sexual assault remain a serious problem within Australian universities.
To make real change, and create settings where students are safe and respected, it is incredibly important for universities to draw on a strong evidence base. Unfortunately, due to methodological changes made in this survey, it is not possible to compare the NSSS results to the Change the Course survey. The ability to compare data points over time is an important component of rigorous longitudinal research. This was a missed opportunity to measure universities’ progress over the past five years.
I thank the students who participated and acknowledge the harms caused by sexual harassment and sexual assault to current and past students. Your time at university should be one of growth, learning, and freedom, not of sexual harassment and assault.
Since 2017 we have seen building community momentum against sexual assault and sexual harassment, and significant work including our Respect@Work National Inquiry (2020) and Set the Standard, our Independent Review of Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces (2021). Expertise, especially on industry action, has grown.
Universities have taken significant action since 2017, as part of their joint Respect. Now. Always. campaign, as well as targeted towards their own campuses. They have invested funds and expertise into new initiatives and, in some cases, demonstrated vocal leadership. I thank the universities for releasing their individual results - students and families are entitled to this clarity - but I warn against using this data to create rankings because this is a systemic problem requiring a whole community response.
Given the national rates of sexual harassment and sexual assault are still high, even over a period of COVID-19 lockdowns, it is critical that universities ensure that individual initiatives are monitored, measured and evaluated in real time, self-correcting as needed.
I encourage universities to continue to unite in industry action, recognising their common drivers of sexual harassment and assault, sharing learnings, ensuring consistency in leadership and commitment, and maximising prevention. All students deserve a safe and respectful education, and failure to provide this reflects badly on all of us.