Image: University of Sydney. Image source.
Following a lot of negative publicity about a culture of sexism in University of Sydney’s colleges, the uni has now conceded an under-reporting of sexual assault and harassment among its students. It has released the results of a September 2015 survey of almost 2000 students, which gathered anonymous information about student experiences of stalking, sexual harassment and sexual assault. A whopping 25% of students reported experiencing some form of unwanted sexual harassment or assault while they were at university. And, while the majority of incidents reportedly took place off campus, the numbers are incredibly sobering.
For instance, the survey found that female students were at significantly higher risk than males, with almost half (40% of women) reporting at least one incident of unacceptable behaviour since enrolling at the university. A further 12% said that they were victims of stalking, 1.6% raped, 5.1% sexually assaulted and 17% sexually harassed. Relationships were also in the spotlight, with 4.2% reporting being in an abusive relationship. In other words, it’s a very dire picture of dangerous sexist culture amongst students at the uni. Something that was incredibly disheartening, too, was the fact that 57% of respondents had no idea about the University of Sydney’s procedures for reporting sexual harassment or assault, nor did they know where they could turn to seek support for these things. This is something that feeds into a wider culture of underreporting and one that the university’s commitment to come forward with these figures might hopefully stand to change. According to the report, “A relatively small percentage (eg 1.4 per cent or less) of even the most serious incidents are reported. The rate of reporting within the university was 1 per cent of incidents reported to an official on campus”.
However, even those that actually were reported paint a damning picture of the institution’s ability to effectively deal with these issues. As The Sydney Morning Herald points out, “of the tiny fraction of students who did report an incident to the university, more than 40 per cent said the university’s formal procedures did not help them deal with the problem – a proportion that ‘requires serious consideration’”. A big part of this problem has to do with the fact that there isn’t a specific procedure for reporting sexual assault on campus. According to The University of Sydney’s women’s officer Anna Hush “there’s a general complaints procedure that is university wide, it’s incredibly generic, also covers things like academic misconduct and intellectual property,” she said. “It’s a form on the website that you fill in, so you have no idea where that information is going, whereas a lot of these [complaints would be] sensitive and confidential.I think there need to be trained staff on hand and a specific process for dealing with this.”
Jordi Austin, the university’s director of student support services, says that part of the reason this on-campus strategy is inherently complex is because the student affairs office is obliged to refer students to the police. “Given that sexual assault is a crime, the university needs to direct all incidents of a crime to the police,” she explains. “We do understand that not all students or victims of crime feel that is appropriate for them. So the other portal we make available as a very important first response is through the sexual assault clinics established in NSW – they have the expertise to help people determine what they want to do. … Then if student feels they want to move forward they can be directed to the complaints portal.”
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, though, the university is “now reviewing its complaints protocols to simplify points of contact and procedures for incident reporting.” This is a positive step forward, but we still have a long way to go. Because these issues aren’t just confined to university campuses and the rapid rate of underreporting therein is also reflective of broader social patterns. But, at very least, it is a start.
Why we need our Australian universities to get it together:
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