WARNING: This article mentions topics of sexual assault and harassment
Sexual violence on university campuses has been a prevalent issue for years. Recently the conversation has shifted, and universities are being forced to face the harsh reality that their inaction has continuously left students without the necessary support.
Universities have often lacked the sophistication to deal with sexual violence, frequently appearing to neglect the issue rather than invest in resources to shift the overall culture on their campuses. There is still a reluctance from universities to address sexual violence head-on or to visibly show students and survivors that prevention and protection are priorities.
The Red Zone Report offers one of the most comprehensive reports on sexual assault on the campuses of Australian universities. The data, collated from the National Survey of Sexual Assault over 2015-2018, found that in a two-year period over 21,000 people were sexually assaulted in a university setting.
That is 200 sexual assaults per week or 30 sexual assaults per day.
With UC claiming ‘zero tolerance’ towards sexual assault and harassment, which they say has no place on campus, why does that, more often than not, feel like code for no action? Or at least, no visible and identifiable action.
In 2016, Universities Australia launched ‘Respect. Now. Always.’, as an attempt to provide guidelines and recommendations to universities to aid in the prevention of sexual violence on campus. In their report, Universities Australia outlined 13 key points, on top of the 10-point action plan, that universities should meet. UC’s Respect. Now. Always. committee, launched in 2017, has allowed the university to start moving in the right direction when dealing with instances of sexual violence on campus. However, UC has failed to meet some of the most significant recommendations set out in the report, including releasing a standalone policy, introducing a safety app for reporting, and effectively communicating reporting pathways.
UC, alongside other universities, and their practitioners, are currently working with Universities Australia to develop the 2021 National Survey. This survey, due to be implemented in the second half of the year, will provide a further snapshot into student experiences with violence on university campuses.
Policies and initiatives like Respect. Now. Always. cannot be effective in a void. If students are not aware of, or cannot access support, reporting systems and other initiatives, or if these initiatives exist without the support of a dedicated sexual assault and harassment policy, or any legitimate advertising to students, the intended support will not be provided. A standalone sexual assault and harassment policy is currently in development, but as policy development takes time, and as it will need to be cleared by UC’s legal team, there is currently no timeline for when this policy will be released and put into effect.
The Reporting Pathway Dilemma
Universities across Australia, including UC, have put effort towards making reporting pathways available to students, with online and in-person alternatives, establishing points of contact for students and working alongside rape-crisis centres for after-hours reporting. But where other universities differ from UC is the clarity and empathy presented in these pathways, which makes them easier to navigate and establishes support from the get-go.
Credit where credit is due, UC does have reporting pathways available, but it takes a lot of clicking and scrolling around to find them, adding that one layer of complication that might deter someone from reporting. So, if the reporting pathways are already hard to navigate, how it is at all reasonable to expect someone to be able to navigate it in a time of crisis?
Reporting an incident of sexual violence can be done via the ‘Report an Incident’ page, found in the on-campus section on UC’s homepage, and through selecting the UC Safe Community Report. The first key guideline recommended by Universities Australia’s report is to ‘be guided by the principles of compassion […]’ UC’s online reporting pathway has failed this simple test. Online reporting of sexual violence is done on the same page as one would report exposure to chemicals, and the extent of support services listed is a link to the ‘Where to get help page,’ which lists contact information for a variety of support services (inclusive of, but not specific to, sexual violence).
Contrary to this, the University of Technology Sydney has one page dedicated to sexual violence support and reporting. It provides information on what constitutes sexual harassment and assault, support services for survivors and friends, information on where to get help, and links and information on how to report, available on their ‘When things go wrong page.’ Most importantly, it does so with compassion and empathy clearly at its core, including an informative and supportive video.
UC’s Safe Community Report form uses obscure and hard to understand language such as ‘Please be aware that we have an obligation to submit information if it is of a severe nature.’ without specifying who information would be submitted to and what constitutes ‘severe nature.’ For victims of sexual violence reporting to police or having police involved can be a deterrence and given that UC has pledged a survivor-centric model, insensitive comments like this can confuse and dissuade survivors from reporting.
This highlights a clear difference between UC and other universities, like the University of Sydney, Monash University, and Macquarie University. These universities constantly promoting and updating these pathways to meet student needs and concerns, they have even implemented university-wide training for students on how to effectively respond to and help prevent sexual violence on campus.
UC has a specialist-trained, compassionate, and supportive team at Wellbeing that act as the in-person point of contact for students wishing to get support. Student Wellbeing has a list of concerns that, should a student experience, they are encouraged to contact the team. Sexual violence is not on that list. Despite this, the Wellbeing officers are available to provide support in many ways and if you are looking for support, I strongly suggest booking an appointment. They also take walk-ins at the student centre and have immediate access to the resources at medical and counselling when necessary. They can be contacted at [email protected]
The Wellbeing team are by far the most impressive part of UC’s response to sexual violence on campus. So why is sexual violence excluded from their list of support services? We have entered a repetitive cycle; if reporting pathways are not effectively communicated and advertised to students, difficult to locate, and not compassionate to survivors experiencing trauma, then it is not effective.
Support Shouldn’t Be A Secret
Now, there is a reason I can say, with a fair level of confidence, that this does not seem to be a priority for UC. When asked about the lack of advertising on reporting pathways, or even advertising that a member of security can escort you to your car or the bus stop if you’re feeling unsafe, the response provided by the university was that it would be too triggering for students.
Clearly the standard for what is and is not ‘too triggering’ does not apply to other posters around campus. Specifically, the ones found in some bathrooms, which so cavalierly imply that consent is a checkbox item, something you tick off at the start of an interaction, as opposed to an ongoing conversation. And, to make matters worse, they have placed consent next to something that is entirely optional, the use of a condom. The implications of this, whether intentional or not, are incredibly harmful and dangerous.
I know the damage that can come from a lack of conversation, awareness, and compassion within an institution. It is why I knew I could not report my assault when it happened, because I knew it would not be taken seriously. So, speaking from personal experience, I would rather know I have options available to keep me safe, and see them advertised around campus, than feel as though support is not an option. But I guess that’s just me.
Student Consultation? Or Not…
The Sex and Health edition is a Curieux tradition established in the 70s. Since then, almost every Sex and Health issue has discussed UC’s response to sexual violence on campus. Still, in recent years the closest UC’s executives appear to have come to a semblance of a conversation with the student body or that is accessible to students, is through the introduction of the Consent Matters course. This consists of 3 modules, titled ‘Consent’, ‘Communication Skills and Relationships’, and ‘Looking Out for Others’, run online. Although one area of this course is titled ‘Support’ and another, ‘Resource bank,’ there is no information on any support services or reporting pathways available at UC throughout the entire course. Though this course is a step in the right direction, with mandatory participation introduced in 2019, this should not be where the conversation stops.
In conversation with a member of the RNA Team, Curieux was told that in November 2020, when my original article was published, a broader conversation was triggered. They claimed incremental changes were made as feedback came in. When asked what these changes were, the emphasis was on a change of language rather than a change of process.
The questions I have following this are will this broader conversation actually lead to visible university-wide changes and will this conversation continue even after the threat of public criticism that comes from an article, is gone?
In an updated statement to Curieux, the RNA Team said,
‘Following the feedback provided from students in response to the first Curieux article on UC’s response to sexual assault and sexual harassment, a comprehensive review of University reporting pathways was conducted in early 2021. This has helped inform the development of a standalone policy and procedure on sexual assault and harassment.’
On further questioning, the RNA team clarified the forms of feedback provided by students, including SRC involvement on the RNA Committee, informal collection of feedback through social media and communication channels, and the original Curieux article.
The SRC has a representative on the RNA committee, previously this role has been filled by the President. It is currently unclear if Keisha Preston, the current SRC President, attended the first RNA committee meeting of 2021, back in March, however the current Diversity Officer did attend. Alanah Pike, the SRC Health Representative and Women’s Officer, has since been made the SRC’s representative to the RNA committee, with plans to attend future committee meetings in that capacity.
As the SRC are representatives of the UC student body, it is important that, when these meetings are taking place, they not only have a seat at the table, but that someone is there to fill it. This person needs to be a consistent attendee of these meetings, ensuring they are well versed in the issues and policy being discussed to effectively represent the student body. There was a level of confusion and miscommunication around the current SRC’s involvement with the RNA committee. Which raises questions around the student consultation process, and whether the current SRC are best able to represent the student body on an issue of this scale, if communication is not maintained.
If universities want a no-tolerance approach to sexual violence on campus, then having these conversations need to be a regular feature. Keeping this work behind closed doors does not help keep anyone safe and does little to change the culture on campus.
Sexual violence is a wicked problem that universities cannot solve alone, but they do have a direct responsibility to actively create a safe environment for students, which involves easy access to information, support, and a transparent disciplinary process. If we do not see these changes being implemented, then the university has failed to fulfil this duty.
UC’s Respect. Now. Always. Team provided two statements to Curieux, first in 2020, and a further comment in response to this article. Both can be found below. The UC Respect Now Always team is contactable via [email protected]
The University of Canberra takes its duty of care to all staff, students, and community members very seriously. This includes providing a campus environment – both the physical space and our online environment – in which our community members feel safe, respected, and free from harm. This extends to working to prevent incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
The University of Canberra is committed to eliminating the drivers of sexual assault and sexual harassment through proactive and educative action and campaigns, promoting a no-tolerance approach to these types of behaviours. Through our communications, we make it clear that we offer a safe space for victims and action will be taken against perpetrators.
The Respect. Now. Always. Committee, formed in 2017, is a cross-portfolio team comprising key stakeholders across the University that work to implement initiatives and actions that make our campus community safer and target the underlying behaviours and attitudes that foster an environment in which sexual assault and sexual harassment could occur.
This includes the rollout of training programs for staff and students, such as Consent Matters; the review of our incident reporting mechanism and procedures, ensuring more effective triaging and support for students who report incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment; a specialist review of policy and procedures at UC (The Broderick Review); working alongside our Campus Estate team to improve campus security and safety measures; professional development for front-line staff in responding to disclosures of sexual assault and sexual harassment; the development of appropriate guidelines and procedures pertaining to sexual assault and sexual harassment in the tertiary environment; and oversight of the UC Respect campaign.
We are informed in our action by the work of experts in the field and across the sector, taking on board best practice in the implementation of actions but always ensuring that our approach is suited to the UC context. We take a survivor-centred approach to our work. We seek to involve the student community in the development of actions to ensure that our response includes the student voice and resonates with our student body.
May 2021 Update
Further to the above, the University has invested more resourcing into the Respect. Now. Always. as we have returned to increased levels of campus activity in 2021. The University is currently in the process of an extensive review and analysis of the incident reporting mechanism and associated workflows to ensure an improved user reporting experience and to provide greater clarity for people as to when and how to report incidents. This will include user testing with students over the second half of 2021.
Following the feedback provided by students in response to the first Curieux article on UC’s response to sexual assault and sexual harassment, a comprehensive review of University reporting pathways was conducted in early 2021. This has helped to inform the development of a standalone policy and procedure on sexual assault and harassment.
The University has renewed its licence access to Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence and Consent Matters and is reviewing content to ensure that it meets the needs of our students and staff and is contextualised to the UC environment.
Training for staff and students continues to be rolled out by specialist providers alongside our existing teams, such as Medical and Counselling, Welfare and Wellbeing. This includes Healthy Relationships training, face-to-face support in Consent Matters and responding to disclosures training.
The University is currently working with the peak body organisation, Universities Australia, and other universities and their practitioners, to develop the 2021 National Survey ready for implementation in the second half of this year. UC will support Universities Australia in delivering this survey to our students and in providing support and communications around this.
The Communications team are working on integrating student developed content into our existing campaign material, in particular content that was developed by the UC Project Hub team (DO UC RESPECT– Know the Line). The intent of this campaign is to address the behaviours and environment that can lead to incidents of sexual assault and harassment and helping people identify how to call this behaviour out when they see it.
Finally, the Respect. Now. Always. Committee members have identified the need for a manager’s toolkit to be rolled out across the University to support staff in being able to support people within our community in responding to incidents of sexual assault and harassment when they are reported.
Further information about the work of the Committee and the University’s response can be directed to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Office.
For crisis support, call 1300 271 790, or text on 0488 884 227 to reach the dedicated 24/7 University Crisis Line, operated by Lifeline.
The University of Canberra Medical and Counselling Centre is also open 9 am – 5 pm, Monday – Friday. They provide counselling support services to all staff and students on-campus. You can reach them on 6201 2351.
If you have experienced or witnessed a safety issue or concern, no matter how big or small, report the incident on UC’s safe community website.
You can also call the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre 6247 2525 for more support.
If you are in danger, call triple zero (000).