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Launch of Change the Course: National report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities

Discrimination Sex Discrimination



1 August 2017

[Check against delivery]

I am pleased to launch the Change the course: National report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities.


This report marks a huge milestone.

For decades, university students and survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment have advocated for change.

We have all heard stories of these behaviours occurring on campus.

Today, we have the first statistically significant, national data on the scale and nature of this problem at Australia’s universities.


The Change the Course report is based on the results of a National university student survey
which was conducted last year by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The survey examined
the prevalence, nature and reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities,
and was completed by more than 30,000 students across Australia.

Our report also includes powerful stories and quotes from written submissions we received.

We received 1849 submissions in total.

This is the largest number of submissions ever received by the Commission in relation to a single piece of work, demonstrating the magnitude of this issue and the desire for change.

The individual stories contained in our report highlight the devastating impacts of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Many university students are young people, who are maturing into adulthood and may be living away from home for the first time, seeking new friends and new experiences at university. University is a formative experience and many of these students will be future leaders of this country.

It is confronting to realise that sexual harassment and sexual assault is a common feature of academic, social and residential life for students. Sadly, the impacts of these experiences can be life changing: affecting health, studies and future careers.

The Change the course report tells a clear, but disturbing, story. 

We have known for a long time that sexual assault and sexual harassment occur far too frequently in Australian workplaces.

The findings of our research make it clear that that this is also the case in our universities.

Key findings

Let’s start by looking at the facts.

  • Overall, one in five students was sexually harassed at university last year.
  • 1.6% of students were sexually assaulted in a university setting in 2015 or 2016.

To put this in context, in a lecture theatre containing 100 students, at least one student – if not more – will have been sexually assaulted at university in the past two years. And 21 will have been sexually harassed at university in the past year.

  • In 2016, women were almost twice as likely as men to have been sexually harassed in a university setting.
  • The survey found that 32% of women and 17% of men had been sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016.
  • Women were more than three times as likely as men to have been sexually assaulted in a university setting in 2015 or 2016.

Our survey also collected the first national prevalence data on sexual assault and sexual harassment experienced by trans and gender diverse people anywhere in Australia, and found that they were more likely than either men or women to have been sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016.

  • We also found that students who identified as bisexual, gay, lesbian and homosexual reported higher rates of these behaviours than those who identified as heterosexual.


A large number of students who were sexually harassed or sexually assaulted at university in 2015 or 2016 said that the perpetrator was a fellow student.

This was also something recounted to us in submissions. We received numerous accounts of women being sexually assaulted by people they described as ‘close friends’, who they trusted.

The impacts of being assaulted by a friend from university were often severe. In submissions, people described feeling anxious about being on campus because they were afraid of seeing the perpetrator. In some cases, this fear was so great that students dropped out of university all together.

While most perpetrators were fellow students, we heard of the devastating breach of trust when students were harassed by teachers or staff. This was most likely to happen to post graduate students.

Settings where sexual assault and sexual harassment occur

The survey results showed that sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring, to varying degrees, across all university settings.

The most common settings where most recent incidents of sexual harassment occurred were:

  • Public transport to or from university,
  • Campus grounds, and
  • Teaching spaces.

One woman told us in her submission of the ongoing sexual harassment she experienced from her university lecturer, who took the same bus to campus as she did. Over a period of several months, he made her feel more and more uncomfortable.

One day, he put his arm around her and kissed her cheek.

From then on, she arranged for her sister to call her every day while she was on the bus so she could avoid talking to the lecturer.

A number of submissions we received reported unwanted physical contact occurring in the middle of classes.

A female student told us about her classmate exposing his genitals to her during a lecture.

Another woman was groped by a classmate.

In relation to sexual assault, the National Survey results found that most recent incidents most commonly occurred at:

  • University or college social events
  • Residential colleges, and
  • On public transport.

We also received a number of submissions from people describing incidents of sexual assault which occurred at an O-Week Camp. These camps are organised by student clubs and societies to introduce first year students to university life.

A woman told us she was raped by a senior student leader who was running one of these camps. She later heard that he had previously raped other female students at these camps and that no action had been taken.

A large number of submissions described alcohol as a factor contributing to their experience of sexual assault or sexual harassment, both at university social events and within residential colleges.

One woman was on a night out with friends from college. A male friend bought her drinks all night and encouraged her to drink. When she began to feel unwell, he offered to take her back to her college dorm room. Instead, he took her to his bedroom. She passed out on the bed and then woke up to find her friend sexually assaulting her.

Sadly, this was an experience we heard again and again.

We also heard about hazing and other college traditions, which have been widely documented in the media. The fact that these behaviours continue to exist within some colleges, and that they involve sexual assault or sexual harassment of students who are in the first week, or even first night of living in college, is deeply concerning.

Perhaps most worryingly, there was a perception that colleges were aware of these behaviours and did nothing to prevent them. One woman said:

You had to participate, there was nothing you could do about it. The administration knew about this and they condoned this. The students had no power whatsoever, you couldn’t say anything.[1]


The majority of students had little or no knowledge of how to make a formal report or complaint of sexual assault or sexual harassment.

We found that only 2% of people who were sexually harassed and 9% of those who were sexually assaulted at university made a formal report or complaint to their university.

This aligns with low rates of reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the Australian community more broadly.

The Commission heard about the barriers people face to reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment. One of the most common reasons for not reporting was that people did not know where or who to report to.

It is clear that universities must do more to publicise their reporting processes.

We also heard from people who had to wait weeks to access university counselling services, or who were denied special consideration when they were unable to study for exams, due to the trauma experienced after a sexual assault.

A common barrier to reporting was a feeling of shame or self-blame about what had happened.

When individuals did report, we heard that the person they told sometimes reinforced these feelings of shame.

  • One woman who reported her sexual assault to her college was asked about her drinking habits and what she would do in future to make sure this didn’t happen again.
  • Another woman who experienced ongoing sexual harassment by a fellow student reported the behaviour to her supervisor, who told her to take it as a compliment.
  • A man who was sexually assaulted said he did not report to his university because male victims of sexual assault are not taken seriously.
  • A student who was raped by a member of her university sporting club reported her sexual assault to the university, who breached her confidentiality by telling the club. As a result, she was ostracised from the club and lost her friends.

These examples make it clear that attitudinal change and greater awareness is needed not only among university students, but also university staff who receive reports and disclosures of these behaviours.


Change the Course confirms that universities must do more to ensure that everyone has access to a safe university education.

On current enrolment numbers, university students make up around 5% of the Australian population.

Given the size of the university community, taking action to address sexual assault and sexual harassment will not only have a positive impact on universities,
but also has the potential to effect change in Australian society more broadly – where we know that sexual assault and sexual harassment are also occurring at unacceptable rates.

Our report makes a total of nine recommendations aimed at preventing and better responding to sexual assault and sexual harassment at university.

These recommendations cover five key areas

  1. The first is leadership and governance. There needs to be a strong and visible commitment to action from university leaders and better engagement with students, accompanied by clear and transparent implementation of these recommendations.
  2. Second, we are calling on universities to undertake targeted education and campaigns aimed at changing attitudes and behaviours.
  3. Third, we urge universities to improve their responses to sexual assault and sexual harassment, including ensuring that students have access to specialist support.
  4. Fourth, the report also recommends monitoring and evaluation of measures taken to ensure that they are evidence-based and that improvements are made over time.
  5. Finally, in relation to residential colleges, we have recommended an independent, expert-led review to identify measures to address the high prevalence rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment in this setting and for their residents.


I would like to thank:

  • universities and Universities Australia,
  • the National Union of Students,
  • The Hunting Ground Australia Project,
  • The Australian Human Rights Centre at the University of New South Wales, who will launch their good practice report this Thursday; and
  • End Rape on Campus

for their involvement in this work.

I would also like to thank our team at the Australian Human Rights Commission for their hard work and dedication to this project.

Most importantly, I would like to thank all the students and advocates who made a submission or completed our survey – without your contributions this report would not have been possible.

In particular, to all the survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment who participated in this work – I want you to know that your voices have been heard and I commend you for your bravery in coming forward with these deeply personal accounts.

This report is comprehensive and evidence-based.

It provides detailed information about the scale and nature of this issue, which affects a significant proportion of our community.

It is clear that students at our universities are experiencing unacceptable rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

No one can read the stories in this report without being deeply affected.

We must work together to change the course and to ensure that sexual assault and sexual harassment have no place in Australian universities.

Students have done their part, and universities now owe them swift action to address these issues. It cannot wait.

[1] Submission No. 1202.

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner