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Government agency inadequate against campus sexual assault complaints

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Not enough is being done to help students in need by the agency tasked for the role (Image via Unsplash.com)

A volunteer group for the safety of students is disappointed with the lack of action taken by the system against sexual assaults, writes Matilda Duncan.

AUSTRALIA'S HIGHER EDUCATION regulator has revealed it has taken no disciplinary action against multiple universities after receiving six complaints of sexual assault, sexual harassment and/or sexual misconduct throughout 2017-18.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) confirmed in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request that one incident of sexual assault, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct had been reported to the agency in 2017. Five such incidents were reported to the agency the following year in 2018. TEQSA did not take disciplinary action against the universities involved in any of the reported cases.

TEQSA has the power to revoke a university's registration should it be found in breach of the federal legislation, the Higher Education Standards Framework 2015, which in part outlines requirements for universities to ensure student safety and wellbeing and that current and prospective students have access to complaint mechanisms at their university.

Sharna Bremner, Founder and Director of End Rape On Campus Australia (EROC Australia) – a volunteer-run group that directly assists student survivors nationally and advocates for the rights of students – says the organisation is ‘disappointed that TEQSA haven't taken regulatory action against any of the universities they're received complaints about and that's something that we have communicated to them’.

Responding to a request for comment, a spokesperson for TEQSA said:

‘TEQSA has a range of regulatory tools available to it and TEQSA adopts a graduated approach to exercising its formal powers. Decisions made by TEQSA are consistent with the basic principles of regulation of risk, proportionality and necessity.’

EROC Australia were instrumental in filing the first ever complaint received by TEQSA regarding university mishandling of sexual assault complaints. The December 2017 complaint, lodged on behalf of an anonymous complainant against the University of Tasmania, argued inaction by the university had endangered its student population and led to the complainant becoming traumatised enough to drop out of their degree after the university allowed a man convicted of child sex offences while enrolled to continue studying at the institution following his release from jail.

Bremner says EROC Australia decided to file the complaint with TEQSA after the student had spent almost two years trying to get her university to respond adequately to her complaint, saying the situation was by no means unique:

This particular student's story was almost identical to the stories of students we were working with all over the country and we realised that universities were never going to improve their responses without being forced to by an external authority. The Higher Education Standards require that higher ed providers foster a safe learning environment for their students, and TEQSA is responsible for ensuring that providers are meeting the Standards, so we decided to take a shot and file the complaint, even though we had no way of knowing if it would even be accepted.

Just months after this first complaint was submitted by EROC Australia in late 2017, TEQSA announced the creation of a specialised Compliance and Investigations Team in March 2018 to receive complaints from students and investigate possible breaches of the Federal Education Standards. TEQSA denies any connection between these two events. The agency acknowledged that while it does not currently have separate documented processes for dealing with complaints of university mismanagement of sexual assault or harassment, it ‘welcomes complaints relevant to its responsibilities’.

Bremner says the investigative team is a ‘very welcome step’ and that she is:

‘...confident the investigative team will lead to meaningful changes for survivors who do file complaints with TEQSA, but we're also hoping that we'll see some real changes from the universities themselves, which would mean that students wouldn't have to file complaints with the regulator’.

Other universities issued with “please explain” notices by TEQSA in the past year include the University of Sydney, the University of Newcastle and the University of Adelaide, after hazing incidents by St Mark’s Residential College students were publicly reported. The University of Adelaide has since made headlines for hosting the Royal Croquet Club – a popular Adelaide Fringe show venue – on the university’s North Terrace campus, a decision that was made without student consultation and caused students to report feeling unsafe on campus, according to reportage by the ABC.

The Royal Croquet Club was hosted on campus through the University’s 2019 Orientation Week, a time of year EROC Australia and other sexual assault services have termed the “Red Zone” due to the vulnerability of new university students during this time and national spikes in demand for sexual assault services in the weeks immediately following Orientation Week. 

In response to questioning, TEQSA declined to outline any concrete disciplinary actions that might be handed down to universities should a university be found in breach of the Higher Education Standards, saying:

‘Actions taken by TEQSA will be consistent with the basic principles for regulation. As to the penalties, if a university is found to have breached the Standards… any action taken by TEQSA will depend on the nature of the issue/breach and will depend on the individual circumstances of each case or situation.’

Individuals can submit a complaint to TEQSA if they feel their university is failing to meet national standards. Bremner says doing so can be overwhelming for some students, however, and that she has witnessed a reluctance among students to submit complaints to TEQSA, because ‘they've already experienced quite prolonged and re-traumatising internal complaints processes at the university level’.

In her work with EROC Australia, she has seen university complaint processes affect students’ wellbeing and capacity to study:

The university's own processes can become almost a full-time occupation, where they're required to constantly follow up with the university about the progress of their complaint, provide further information, respond to letters or emails and/or supply documentation from medical professionals to support their complaint. That process takes a huge toll on someone's mental wellbeing and the thought of then filing a complaint about that complaints process [to TEQSA] becomes overwhelming.

Bremner says that until universities are held accountable through external agencies like TEQSA, this burden of reporting and trying to hold institutions accountable will continue to fall to individual students. For its part, TEQSA says it ‘takes the wellbeing of all in the higher education sector very seriously’

That it has taken this long for universities to be asked to explain their responses to sexual assault in the first place is telling of a previous lack of Government response, says Bremner:

‘Unfortunately, sexual assault in university communities wasn't really on the radar of TEQSA or the Government departments responsible for the oversight of our higher education sector. Until very recently, the only real attempts at accountability for universities came from students themselves and it's students who are still very much leading the ongoing fight for safer campuses.’

If you feel you are in a situation where you need help or someone to listen, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Matilda Duncan is a writer from South Australia.

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