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'Devastating' report shows universities are 'failing' students

Universities have been accused of "actively covering up sexual assaults" in a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission, which alleges there have been just six expulsions in the past five years despite more than 500 official complaints.

The allegations, made by the advocacy group End Rape on Campus Australia, are based on more than five years of data and freedom-of-information requests, which show more than 500 official complaints of sexual assault and harassment have been made to universities in the past five years, with 145 reports relating specifically to rape.

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In that same period 153 sexual assaults have been reported to police from the addresses of universities in NSW, the ACT, Victoria and WA. There have been six expulsions during that time. 

As hundreds of thousands of students return to university on Monday, the report highlights harrowing cases of sexual assault and "hazing" at the nation's top universities, including the University of Sydney, which called in former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick last year to clean up the culture of its residential colleges. 

The latest submission, one of 1845 responses received by a Human Rights Commission survey due to be released in June, claims students at another university have colloquially referred to an oval as a "rape oval", called cask wine "slut juice" and residential quarters "slut alley". 

Students at the university have also referred to the practice of "rockspidering" in which male students at a residential college would knock on female students' bedroom doors. If the female opened the door this was taken as consent to have sex.  

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The submission says that at a different university, a female international student who said she had engaged in anal sex with a previous partner was forced onto all fours while one male resident stood on her hands, another on her feet, and one sat on her back. 

The student, who can't be identified for legal reasons, was surrounded by other male residents who began chanting "no means yes and yes means anal". Despite the incident being reported to staff, the female student was enrolled in the same class with two of the perpetrators, the submission says.

Macquarie University professor Catharine Lumby said the "devastating" submission has set the benchmark for responding to levels of sexual assault on campus.  

"That such a report needs to be written at all speaks volumes about how comprehensively many of our universities are failing their students," said Professor Lumby.  

"Too often, our universities have dealt with sexual assault and harassment of students by turning a blind eye, by claiming it is not their responsibility or, most shamefully, by actively covering up assaults."  

Further data in the submission reveals the punishment given to sexual assault perpetrators at the University of New England has included fining a student $55, assigning them eight hours of community service and requiring them to write an apology letter.  

The university's vice-chancellor Annabelle Duncan told Fairfax Media past policies dealing with sexual harassment did not enable the university to handle some cases satisfactorily.

"Those policies were reviewed and rewritten when their flaws became apparent, and UNE is currently conducting a full review of its policy," she said.

Professor Lumby, who is also on the board of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, said "policies across [the] tertiary sector are inconsistent, often opaque and not informed by best practice trauma response".

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said universities had embarked on the sector-wide initiative "Respect. Now. Always" to prevent sexual assault. 

"We thank the students who found that courage and participated in the survey or made a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission," she said. 

Further examples cited in the submission include:

  • A rape survivor was asked during a session at the university counselling centre to "close [her] eyes and picture what happened". A spokeswoman for the university said this was not consistent with its practices. 
  • A Melbourne University student who reported her rape to her head of college says they tried to talk her out of informing her parents and was told that talking about her assault at college could "hurt her case". She was also told by fellow students that using the word "rape" was "too strong" and "too inflammatory", and that involving the police was "a bit extreme". A spokeswoman would not comment on the alleged incident but said the university encouraged the reporting of all sexual assaults to the police. 
  • In another instance a student was allegedly raped at a regional NSW university by another male and disclosed the details of his assault to 10 different university staff members, including staff in the university legal department. Despite the report he was still not informed of the avenues available to him or the university's student sexual harassment and assault policies.

The submission criticises the time limits placed on students by universities required to launch a complaint, with the Australian Catholic University procedure reducing formal complaint limits to 20 days, despite the length of time it can often take for a sexual assault survivor to come forward.

ACU's deputy vice-chancellor Dr Stephen Weller said the policy has now been reviewed and will be updated to reflect that all complaints will be considered at any time on their merit. 

The submission also criticised universities' responses to media coverage of the issue.

Shirley Alexander, the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Technology, responded to allegations raised by the media last year. "Penalties for sexual assault are determined by the criminal justice system, not universities!," she tweeted.  

But Michael Salter, a senior lecturer in criminology at Western Sydney University, said universities have a responsibility to respond to sexual violence and victimisation within their own community

"A feeling of institutional betrayal significantly increases the likelihood that a student will develop long term traumatic mental health issues," he said in the submission. 

One of the submission's authors, Sharna Bremner, said the issue had been brewing for decades. 

"This is not political correctness gone mad as some people would call it," she said.

"The Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency does mandate universities have to provide a safe learning environment, at the moment with their approach to sexual assault they are failing to uphold those standards."