A landmark national survey of sexual assault and harassment on Australian university campuses would not have happened without “years of advocacy” by students and survivors of sexual assault, sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins said.
The damning report, which found that one in 10 female university students had been sexually assaulted in the past two years and less than one in 20 believe their university is doing enough to support victims, was released by the Australian Human Rights Commission on Tuesday.
It was funded by a $1m grant by Universities Australia, which represents Australia’s 39 universities, but Jenkins said the process began years before and was formally started by a group called The Hunting Ground Project Australia, which raised $150,000 through crowd-funding to support the research.
Jenkins told Guardian Australia that without the advocacy from groups like The Hunting Ground Project Australia and End Rape on Campus Australia, which are both offshoots of groups focused on reducing sexual assault in US colleges, universities would likely not have realised the scale of the problem.
“I do think that historically universities have probably had a view that it’s too easy to blame us for everything, this is not a problem here, or if it is stop blaming us,” she said. “But I think in more recent times, the student advocacy, which has been going on for decades, but the student advocacy has really got its messages through a whole lot better.”
Some issues, like the increased risk of sexual assault for people who live in a residential college or on-campus accommodation, surprised even Jenkins, prompting the commission to recommend another specific independent expert-led review into the culture at residential colleges.
The survey results showed that 34% of those who reported being sexually assaulted on campus were living in a residential college at the time of the last incident, despite people who lived in residential colleges making up only 7% of the total survey respondents.
“News reporting in recent times has really spotlighted residential colleges,” she said. “I think that it is really helpful to get the data to really understand whether that’s just spotlighting a few issues or whether it is a real systemic problem, and I think our data really shows that actually it is a problem that requires a lot of attention.”
Jenkins was appointed sex discrimination commissioner in February 2016, the same time Australian universities launched their Respect. Now. Always. campaign and announced they had commissioned the AHRC to conduct the national survey.
She said she was not involved in discussions leading up to that, “but I suspect universities really didn’t feel it was as big a problem as it is.”
“The last couple of years they have come to realise that there probably is an issue that they need to deal with,” she said.
At the launch of the report in Sydney, Universities Australia president and Monash University vice chancellor prof Margaret Gardner acknowledged the “unacceptable” rates of sexual assault and harassment detailed in the report, and apologised to the victims.
“We are sorry that this happened to you,” Gardner said. “Sexual assault is a crime. the person who sexually assaulted you had no right to do what they did. It is not your fault.”
That apology was “important,” Jenkins said.
She said she understood the anger of some students and advocates that universities – which have historically done a poor job at responding to reports of sexual assault and harassment, the report found – had claimed ownership of the research.
But the result, she said, was “hugely significant.”
“I think it’s symbolic in that the vice chancellors… there’s no sense of denial, they are accepting responsibility,” Jenkins said. “Margaret (Gardner) apologised to the survivors and acknowledged that absolutely that should never happen to students, and they are committing to talk to students and to put in place changes.
“We’re not there, but that is a really important part of this journey.”
End Rape on Campus Australia founder Sharna Bremner said it was “devastating” to hear Universities Australia “take credit for the work that was done by survivors, students and advocates.”
Bremner said that while she welcomed the apology, universities had not fully acknowledged the role they played by not supporting victims and penalising perpetrators.
“True change begins with transparency and an admission that there’s a problem,” she said. “If universities can’t give credit to survivors for their hard work or even admit that they too have played a role in the harm suffered by students, we may never see that true change eventuate.”
According to the report, only 9% of students who had been sexually assaulted on campus reported the attack to their university, with most respondents citing confusion about their university’s complaints procedure.
In written submissions, students who did report said their university either appeared not to care, breached their confidentiality in telling the alleged perpetrator, or failed to punish the perpetrator.
Some respondents said they dropped out of certain classes or university altogether because they were unable to avoid the person who had attacked when on campus.
Jenkins said widespread national debate of the issue – even though some of it was critical of the report and its methodologies – was instrumental in changing the culture at universities so that sexal assault and harassment was no longer accepted or overlooked.
She said pre-prepared institution-wide emails and videos released by some universities, which were criticised by some advocates as being “polished PR messages,” would also help change that culture.
“Over my career I’ve worked with lots of organisations who have engaged people to do bits of work that have been shoved on the top shelf and never seen the light of day,” she said.
She said she was “confident” that the commitment of many universities to support all nine recommendations in the report, which includes doing another national survey in three years to check on their progress and working with students and sexual assault survivors to improve policies, will produce positive change.