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UniSA assault statistics reveal work still needs to be done

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Lack of official assault reports indicate problem areas such as not knowing how or where to report an assault (Image via unsplash.com)

Statistics for sexual assaults at the University of South Australia reveal improvements needed in prevention and support, writes Matilda Duncan.

THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA has had no incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment reported throughout the last two years, according to figures released in response to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

UniSA stated no incidents of sexual assault, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, with either students or staff alleged to be responsible, had been reported to the university in 2017.

In their January 2019 response to a second FOI request seeking data on the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the university during January to October 2018, UniSA stated that:

‘...after an extensive search of existing records none could be found that matched that section of [the FOI] application.’

UniSA also reported handling no complaints of sexual harassment, sexual assault or sexual misconduct at the James Morrison Academy of Music at UniSA in the first ten months of 2018.

According to Dr Bianca Fileborn, a lecturer in Criminology and sexual violence researcher at the University of Melbourne, a zero statistic doesn't mean sexual violence isn't occurring at a university:

‘Decades of research on sexual violence shows most survivors don't report through formal mechanisms — they might disclose to friends and family, or seek support through a medical service, but seeking formal support from an institution is much less likely.’

A lack of formal reports to a university could be also explained by a host of other reasons, says Dr Fileborn, including students being unaware of reporting mechanisms available to them, institutions having insufficient processes available in the first place, or students deciding not to progress with a formal complaint after talking to university staff.

As with reporting to police, says Fileborn, there can be a decision-making process undertaken by the person taking the report that can result in disclosures being filtered out along the way: “Does the person taking the report consider the incident to be sexual assault or sexual violence? Does a record get kept?”

The recent figures released by the university are a departure from previous reports from UniSA. In response to a nationwide FOI investigation of universities conducted by Channel 7 in 2016, UniSA reported 17 incidents of rape, attempted rape and other sexual misconduct as having occurred at the university during the preceding five-year period.

Additional research by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), as reported in the 2017 Change the Course report, suggested UniSA students experienced the fourth-highest rate of on-campus sexual assaults nationally across 2015/16, the highest rate in South Australia. 3% of the UniSA students surveyed stated they had been assaulted on campus, a figure almost double the national average of 1.6%, placing UniSA behind only the University of New England, Australian National University and Charles Sturt University as one of the highest-risk institutions. Almost one in four (24%) UniSA students responding to the survey stated they had been sexually harassed at university over 2015/16.

Well over half (59.5%) of UniSA respondents to the AHRC survey stated they knew nothing about – or knew very little about – where to go for support within the university regarding sexual assault.

Sharna Bremner, the director of End Rape on Campus Australia, says there are a number of reasons formal university statistics might not accurately reflect the experiences of students:

Some of the issues we've seen with university reporting systems include information being kept informally, or recorded in a number of different locations instead of one central place, meaning accurate figures can be hard to come by. Students are still telling us that they're not able to find their university's official reporting policies or procedures, so they're unable or unwilling to file formal reports to their institution.

 

Most common, however, is that students are aware that their university has a terrible track record of responding to formal reports. They know of other students whose reports have been dragged out over months or years by the university or students who have been re-traumatised by how their university responded to reports.

 

Student survivors don't have a lot of faith in their universities, but they want someone to know what happened to them so they're more willing to disclose their assaults in a survey like the one conducted by the AHRC.

 

It's hugely concerning if UniSA – or any other university – hasn't received a single report of sexual harassment or assault. That raises a huge red flag, because it means that students either aren't aware of how to file a report, or they aren't confident in doing so. Either way, zero reports is never, ever a good thing.

Since the release of the AHRC Change the Course report, UniSA has set up a dedicated webpage to chart their progress in response. It would appear aspects of this page, however, have not been regularly updated over months, with the development of a ‘well-defined sexual assault and sexual harassment policy and procedures for students and staff’ remaining listed as ‘going through formal approval process in July/August 2018’ until 11 February 2019, when it was changed a day after having been pointed out to UniSA staff in response to questioning.

A spokesperson for UniSA responded to a request for comment, stating:

The goal of all the policies and procedures UniSA has assessed, improved and implemented are designed to ensure that UniSA has a culture that reflects safety, respect and zero tolerance for sexual assault and harassment. Our aim is to provide safe campuses where all students feel comfortable and respected and we believe we are progressing with that goal.

 

In 2017 the University initiated a review of its sexual assault policies and the team undertaking that review included an expert external consultant. A range of findings and recommendations were approved by the University and following the Australian Human Rights Commission and Universities Australia recommendations, strategies were refined and adopted. These strategies are being rolled out now.

 

As part of the University’s plan to promote safer campuses, its website has been updated to reflect the new Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Policy and Procedures which were approved by UniSA Council in November 2018.

 

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency has favourably assessed UniSA’s policies and procedures.

Bremner says the promise of change from universities in the wake of the AHRC survey has not yet translated into real progress being made in heightening student safety and that students are still reluctant to make reports to their university:

For a lot of students, the fact that perpetrators still aren't facing any real consequences means that they're reluctant to file a report - why would you bother when a perpetrator is found to have broken the university's code of conduct, but only gets a “formal warning” or a “note” on their file?

 

Universities have a long way to go to ensure that student survivors feel safe and comfortable to file reports. We need to see more transparency around reporting processes, with defined timelines for investigative procedures being made clear and with universities actually putting their “zero tolerance” and “respect now always” rhetoric into practice.

 

Going through a lengthy, re-traumatising reporting and investigations procedure to find out that your university won't tell you the outcome, or has failed to take any real action against your perpetrator, is devastating. It's no wonder students are reluctant to come to forward to their university.

There are plenty of actions universities can take to make reporting easier for survivors and ensure improved record-keeping, says Dr Fileborn, but:

...actually having processes in place is an important start. One thing we learned from the Australian Human Rights Commission survey is that many institutions don't have good processes in place—many students and staff don't know where to go [for help].

 

Having multiple avenues available for reporting is essential, as survivors have different needs – this could be in the form of an online portal, a phone number, or an office you can go to – along with communicating to people that these avenues are available. It's also important to make it clear the people responding have been trained and that survivors will be believed and supported.

Bremner says that despite the press releases and public declarations to do better, universities still aren't making as much progress in addressing sexual assault as they say they are, 18 months after the release of the AHRC survey results:

Unfortunately, despite the glossy statements they've released and the “big steps” they've self-reported to the AHRC and TEQSA, progress towards implementing the recommendations from Change the Course has been at a glacial pace. We're seeing universities report that they've undertaken a suite of measures to address and better respond to sexual violence, but those measures aren't seeing any real progress on the ground.

 

We've seen just a handful of unis undertake independent, expert-led reviews of their policies and procedures and actually make the findings of those reviews public. Those findings show a vastly different picture to what the universities have self-reported, again proving that we can't trust what the universities are telling us.

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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