1 in 5 UTS Students Experience Sexual Harassment, and Most Don’t Know How to Report it.

1 in 5 UTS Students Experience Sexual Harassment, and Most Don’t Know How to Report it.

Michael Zacharatos

Cw: sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Today, universities across Australia released data and held information seminars following a report from the Australian Human Rights Commission (‘AHRC’). In response, Universities Australia has launched a 10-Point Plan and UTS has announced a range of initiatives to ensure student safety, support, and reporting.

Early this morning, Commissioner Jenkins appeared on live stream to release the AHRC’s Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities, which aims to understand the extent to which students are affected, and what best practice responses should be implemented. This report is based on data collected through 30,000 national survey responses and a submissions process in collaboration with Universities Australia — the peak representative body of all 39 Australian universities. 793 of these responses came from UTS. Jenkins attested that a survey of this magnitude marked “a huge milestone” for the collection of “statistically significant data on the nature and prevalence of sexual assault at Australian universities”. The findings cast a shadow over the romanticised university experience, and bring to attention both a toxic campus culture and an array of institutional failings.

Previously, the AHRC proposed to release the findings on 31 May. Students and activists opposed this as it would cross over with many university exam and holiday periods, a time where counselling services are notoriously difficult to access. The now arrived date of 1 August has since allowed universities to prepare necessary support services, and UTS seemingly made use of this time by arranging for trained counsellors to be present following the information session at UTS in the Great Hall at midday.

Amongst other findings, the report reveals that across the country:

  • 1 in 5 students were sexually harassed at a university, where women were twice as likely to be targeted than men.
  • 9% of students were sexually assaulted in 2015 and/or 2016, 1.6% of which occurred in a university setting, where women were three times as likely to be targeted than men.
  • Trans and gender diverse people were more likely than either men or women to be sexually harassed in a university setting.
  • 44% of students who identified as bisexual and 38% of students who identified as gay, lesbian, or homosexual were sexually harassed, compared to 23% identifying as heterosexual.
  • Conflated by issues of shame, self-blame, and a fear of not being taken seriously, the most common reason for not reporting either sexual harassment or assault was due to not knowing where or who to report to.
  • University follow-ups were frequently insufficient, including taking weeks to connect survivors to counselling services, and not allowing for special consideration in exams and assessments.

Overall, UTSSA Women’s Convener Chloe Malmoux-Setz finds the frequency of indecent behaviour and the lack of reporting through UTS channels “unsurprising”, and believes the report is more of an instrument to prompt university action. Although national findings are generally consistent amongst other university-specific results, there are pieces of UTS data that warrant scrutiny. Alarmingly, 87% of UTS students have “some” to “no” knowledge of where to seek support and assistance with the university regarding sexual harassment, a fact which Malmoux-Setz declares is “shameful”, and that management has a duty to “educate [people who have experienced sexual violence] on the services that are available”. Additionally, 35% of the sexual harassments reported occurred on public transport, a figure vastly distinguished from the national average of 22%. Further, while the majority of perpetrators of sexual harassment are students from the same university (58%), UTS rates highly for having perpetrators from other universities (17%) versus the national average (7%) — a figure possibly influenced by the central locality of the UTS campuses.

The information session held at midday, hosted by Provost Professor Andrew Parfitt, allowed staff and students to voice concerns and critique the UTS response. When one student gave testimony criticising the quality of a UTS counsellor, the response was that all 15 full and part-time staff had certified trauma training and met all education requirements. When asked about the disproportionately high levels of marginalised victims, Parfitt asserted that, as this is an issue which impacts the whole UTS community, measures were being taken ensure the safety of the most vulnerable, although explicit details were lacking. When asked how the University might respond to perpetrators found guilty of sexual assault or harassment, and whether perpetrators may be stripped of their conferred degrees, Parfitt deferred to the police officers present. However the question was quickly deflected back to Parfitt, as the officer insisted, “Once the matter has been finalised in court, the rest is up to the university”. The final sentiment was that this was still a topic yet to be resolved. The University has announced a range of initiatives to respond to the report’s findings, and have been distributed to all student and staff emails, which include opening an online reporting portal, increasing the number of present counsellors, and the launch of the 24/7 UTS Sexual Assault Support Line.

However, the AHRC report does not escape criticism. Malmoux-Setz makes reference to the difficulties in accurately reporting on these issues, as “the only answers are coming from people who chose to put themselves through the [trauma] again — and some choose not to”. However, as a far more quantifiable obstruction, the surveys were only available to be answered in English. This means that international students, who activists often describe as being less knowledgeable of reporting mechanisms, were not accurately represented in the survey. And it shows — international students were reported as being less at risk than domestic students, a finding Malmoux-Setz describes as possibly being “inaccurate”. At the morning media panel, when asked if international students were given the option to take the survey in their native language, Commissioner Jenkins merely replied, “No”, and offered no further comment.

Over the course of their research, the AHRC received 1,849 submissions, which is the most the Commission has ever received for a single work. While this highlights the pervasiveness of the problem, it is also, as described by Commissioner Jenkins, indicative of “the appetite for change”. In the words of Parfitt, the AHRC survey and the preliminary University responses are “the start of the conversation, not the end”.

 

If this article or survey induces feelings of anxiety or distress, or you just need someone to speak with, support is available by calling 1800 RESPECT.

The 24/7 UTS Sexual Assault Support Line is also available for extra support during this time at 1800 531 626.

Further, UTS now has accessible information regarding support options within UTS and the external community.