The Australian National University will overhaul its sexual violence policies after an independent review found students were unhappy with how incidents were handled and student leaders were struggling under the high demands of offering pastoral care to peers living on campus.
The audit into ANU student halls, which was released late on Thursday, did note a positive culture within many residences with overall high levels of satisfaction among those surveyed as new policies and training around sexual violence were rolled out across the Canberra university.
It also found little evidence of hazing despite earlier incidents revealed in the media, backing sexual violence prevention strategies put in place by the university since the release of a landmark survey of the sector in August 2017.
But survivors who reported their experiences to the university told a different story. Only 32 per cent of residents who had disclosed sexual violence said they felt listened to and had their needs met, and a further 42 per cent said they were not satisfied with how residential staff had responded.
The review was conducted by Nous Group, the consultancy firm that ironed out sexual harassment policy for the Australian Navy, and involved extensive consultation with more than 2000 students and staff, along with some former residents of the ANU's 13 student halls.
Commissioned in May 2018 by the ANU, the Nous Review noted that the university's improved sexual violence responses were sound in principle, but said "more needed to be done", particularly to improve transparency. It called for an entirely new framework, splitting support for survivors and alleged perpetrators off from incident investigations, which the ANU has since accepted, along with minimum requirements for student leaders offering pastoral care in residences.
Often both survivor and first responder were left with the sense that "nothing happens", the report said of the current model.
While Nous heard evidence that residential staff were compassionate, hard-working people committed to preventing such incidents in their halls, fewer than one in ten students said they would approach staff if they felt vulnerable or unsafe and many wanted them to be more accessible.
More than half of student leaders who heard disclosures from a survivor said they did not follow the prescribed response to the letter, with many reporting confusion around their obligations, particularly when the person wanted to remain anonymous.
"Several staff indicated that they would discourage...survivors from particular actions based on previous poor experiences of other survivors or challenges they themselves have faced navigating existing systems," the report said.
The review also called for more resources for the university's new Respectful Relationships Unit, which coordinates the insitution's response to sexual violence, including a clear case management and police liaison role.
Pro-vice-chancellor Richard Baker said he was confident the unit's existing budget of $660,000 a year and almost five full-time staff was enough to carry the new model forward, and he hoped to have it up and running early in the new year.
Ahead of the review, Professor Baker travelled to a number of universities across North America to research best practice responses to sexual violence.
Work was now underway to develop a specialist online reporting portal, which would go live once the unit was at full strength, he said, along with a new university-wide sexual violence policy.
A pilot student ambassador program, inspired by initiatives in the US, would also be ramped up, he said, having already successfully trained 15 students to discuss consent with their peers.
The Nous review noted that student leaders and senior residents, who were selected by staff or elected by their peers, were often young people balancing their own full-time study loads.
"They frequently manage distressed students and have significant levels of responsibility over the pastoral care of 25 or more students," it said.
The review called for better pay, working conditions and support for students taking on such a role.
While such students almost always received training, Nous found their average age was too low and called on the university to mandate the positions be held only by students in at least their third year of study.
In one case, a second-year student with no training was in a supervisory role overseeing other senior residents.
Professor Baker agreed this was a good step forward but said it would be difficult to implement until more beds were built for post-graduate students and those in the later years of study, as current ANU halls offered priority places to first-years.
In July, student Tess Masters launched a survey into pastoral care in ANU halls, citing her own harrowing experiences as a senior resident.
As she was being paid via a scholarship, Ms Masters said she couldn't access workplace counselling to cope with vicarious trauma and was required to be on call for long periods for her peers, having to give notice if she wished to leave the hall for more than 48 hours.
"I would avoid being in my room alone because all I could think of was the harrowing stories I'd been told by residents...as they sat on my bed," Ms Masters wrote in student paper Woroni.
While students have access to counselling on campus including staff from the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, some student leaders reported to Nous they would have liked more support but didn't want to ask for it.
President of the ANU's post-graduate association Zyl Hovenga-Wauchope said the review's recommendations seemed sensible and reflected strong engagement with the student body by Nous. But he noted the review's scope had looked more at policies than how individual cases were handled.
Nine in ten students surveyed by Nous said they felt 'quite safe or totally safe' in their residences at night but significantly more male residents reported feeling safe than women.
The university, having accepted all 12 recommendations in the review, will audit its progress annually.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre on 02 6247 2525. Nationally, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. In an emergency contact 000.