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National university sex abuse survey is 'decades' overdue, says Gillian Triggs

The first national survey designed to discover how widespread sexual assault and harassment is among university students is decades overdue, says Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs.

All 39 of Australia's universities will participate in the research project to give the sector a proper understanding of the prevalence of attacks and harassment on campuses.

Professor Triggs hopes the data will shine a light on disturbing initiation rituals, the experience of international students, and the rates of sexual assaults at universities compared to wider communities.

"The human stories are important, but ultimately to develop policy, to respond to it in a nationwide consistent manner we ultimately need research," Professor Triggs told reporters after the survey's launch on Tuesday.

"It will produce, I believe, scientifically valuable data that allows the vice- chancellors then to agree on processes for the future."

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Professor Triggs said the research was critical, not only to end a culture of sexual harassment, but to bolster Australia's reputation as one of the major global suppliers of high-quality education.

Speaking at the launch, Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said she was stalked while serving as women's officer at the University of Technology Sydney, and said she was heartbroken to know more hadn't changed since then.

"When we had our sexual harassment campaign I got a phone call in the middle of the night threatening to rape me," Ms Plibersek said.

"(It is) heartbreaking that we are still asking students to cope in an environment where they don't feel safe, where they feel harassed, where they feel actually physically at risk."

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said complaint systems could often prove difficult to navigate and produce unsatisfactory outcomes.

Heidi La Paglia, the women's officer at the National Union of Students, said she had heard countless stories of sexual assault or harassment from students, many of whom didn't report it or felt let down by the response.

"I think the relief will come when the problem stops and when students no longer have to feel unsafe on university campuses," she said.

University of NSW vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs said he and his peers were determined to expose the "inconvenient truth" and empower those suffering.

"This sort of behaviour, whether it's men or women, is life changing and life damaging," he said.

"Of course Universities Australia - the 39 vice-chancellors - are absolutely determined to make our universities a safe place where people can have a fulfilling university experience."

The national prevalence survey, which is part of the Respect. Now. Always campaign, will be conducted across all university campuses from September.

If you feel distress at any time during or after participating in this survey, support is available by calling 1800 737 732, or 1800 RESPECT. In an emergency call triple-zero.

AAP