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The Slow Uptake of Sexual Misconduct Policies at Australian Universities: Is having a policy enough?

The Swanston Gazette reached out to universities across Australia about when they first implemented policies dedicated to addressing sexual misconduct. Of the 20 who responded, this is what we found.

A survey of top Australian universities found that some of the country’s most popular institutions were the slowest to adopt standalone sexual misconduct policies. 

The Swanston Gazette contacted 41 universities and received 20 replies.

Our survey’s results showed significant variation in the time it took for different universities to implement a stand-alone policy responding to the issue of sexual misconduct.

This means many students were left without a clear, guiding document outlining the formal frameworks to act within if they were to experience sexual harm.

All 41 universities listed on the government’s Study Australia website now have policies that explicitly address sexual misconduct. 

Almost half of the surveyed universities implemented dedicated policies in the year following the release of the 2017 Change the Course report by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report aimed to assess the prevalence of sexual misconduct at Australian universities and provide a recommended course of action.

One of these recommendations was that within a year of the report’s release, all universities should “commission an independent, expert-led review of existing university policies and response pathways in relation to sexual assault and sexual harassment.” These reviews were to assess the efficacy of the policies through criteria such as accessibility and flexibility to suit individual circumstances.

The University of Melbourne and RMIT University, the institutions with the third and fourth highest enrolment numbers according to statistics from the Department of Education, first introduced standalone policies in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

When asked to comment on the delay in its implementation of a sexual harm policy compared to other institutions, an RMIT spokesperson said:

“RMIT is committed to creating a culture of inclusion and respect, where every member of the community feels safe, respected and valued. RMIT’s 'Sexual Harm Prevention and Response Policy’ and ‘Sexual Harm Response Procedure' are part of an expansive policy suite that has been in place since 2022. The policy suite was designed to include all forms of sexual harm and replaced the previous sexual harassment policy which was first implemented in 2007.”

The University of Melbourne did not respond to a request for comment before The Swanston Gazette went to print.

The University of Divinity, a Melbourne-based private college specialising in theology, also introduced its policy in 2022.

“The University’s SASH Policy was developed in response to the TEQSA Good Practice Note on ‘Preventing and responding to sexual assault and sexual harassment in the Australian higher education sector’ (released 2020),” A University of Divinity spokesperson said of the timing of the policy’s implementation.

The University of Wollongong reported the earliest standalone policy, implemented in 1987.

In 2021, the National Student Safety Survey (NSSS), which heard responses from 40,000 students, found that since starting at university, one in six students had been sexually harassed and one in twenty had been sexually assaulted. 

Almost half of all students at Australian universities reported experiencing sexual harassment at least once in their life.

Professor John Dewar, who was chair of Universities Australia at the time of the NSSS, called the findings “distressing, disappointing and confronting.” 

The Swanston Gazette’s survey follows Universities Australia’s decision in July to cut a planned nationwide sexual consent campaign. 

After widespread backlash, Universities Australia chair professor David Lloyd announced that the body had committed to rolling out a redesigned student safety survey in 2024. 

This will be the first survey following the 2021 NSSS, which also faced criticism for being conducted during the COVID pandemic when many students were studying off-campus.

In July, chief executive Catriona Jackson defended Universities Australia’s decision in a statement.

“Our universities have a strong understanding of their own unique demographics, their campuses and their students, which is why they are best placed to continue building on the extensive work undertaken to date,” she said.

While universities might have other measures in place to address sexual harm on campus such as counselling services, consent campaigns and compulsory consent modules, End Rape on Campus Australia founder and director Sharna Bremner says that standalone policies addressing the issue are crucial to supporting students.

Why are standalone sexual misconduct policies important?

According to Bremner, one major benefit is that sexual misconduct policies signal that the university takes the matter seriously.

“We do know that when people are looking for policies and looking for support they often search with particular key terms. Those sorts of key terms are not going to necessarily fall into things like bullying and harassment policies – people don't associate those with the sorts of behaviours that they experience when it's sexual harassment or sexual assault,” Bremner said. 

“So having those standalone policies has been really important.”

However, Bremner noted that some universities found their policies defined the parameters for sexual misconduct too narrowly, which hindered students from reporting their experiences.

“Any student using that policy to file a complaint really wasn't getting anywhere with it because it didn't meet these really specific criteria that were included. But they were able to actually do things under a general misconduct policy,” Bremner said.

“There's been some room for improvement and a lot of good work being done. But I don't think we're at a point now where those individual standalone policies are the best they could be.”

In the survey, some universities provided further details about measures being undertaken to further strengthen policies.

A UNSW Sydney spokesperson told The Swanston Gazette, “Currently, we are working on the development of an expanded gendered violence policy, which encompasses a wider range of behaviours. This strategic shift is aligned with our transition from focusing solely on sexual misconduct to addressing gendered violence.”

Acting provost and senior vice-president at Monash University Professor Sharon Pickering said the institution was “committed to an ongoing cycle of monitoring and evaluation of [the standalone policy] documents, with a review period currently underway”.

What does an effective standalone policy look like?

Bremner said that policies should be clear in terms of what behaviours they are covering. She said many students may not identify with terms like ‘sexual assault’ or ‘sexual harassment’, even if that is what they have experienced.

She said a strong policy should also avoid highly legalistic and inaccessible language, be easy to access, and describe the process that will follow once a student reports an incident to the university.

“It should be really accessible, really clear and lay out steps in a way that's understandable to everybody,” Bremner said.

The 2021 National Student Safety Survey found that a large number of students who made a formal report of sexual misconduct did not receive an explanation of the process that would follow from the university.

Bremner pointed to The University of Technology Sydney’s policy as having clear, accessible language, however said its efficacy was limited by the need to read it alongside multiple other policies to understand how it worked in practice. 

Similarly, UNSW’s policy provided a clear outline of the reporting process, however it only covered incidents occurring on campus or during university-related off-campus activities.

Why did some universities take longer to implement a policy?

Bremner said the reluctance to implement standalone policies could have originated from the binding nature of university policies.

“Once you’ve formalised the policy, it means that first of all, from a regulatory perspective, once you've got that policy in place you actually do have to abide by it,” she said.

“The way that universities are governed means that you have to apply your own policies in a proper and fair manner. And if you don't, students can file complaints with bodies like state Ombudsman's offices, or the Federal University regulator, TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency). 

“So having that policy there means you actually have to do something about it. And I think that was initially what drove a lot of the reluctance to have these policies in place.”

Bremner added that a standalone policy should act as a guiding document that summarises the university’s holistic approach to the issue. 

As the polices are theoretical, legal documents, they should also direct students to other resources which outline the practical processes and support services available to individuals following their experience of sexual harm.

“Those policies do create the governing document. I think that's the crux of the issue. And that to not have a policy in place for so long is a big red flag to me,” Bremner said.

If the content in this article has been distressing in any way, the following helplines can be good places to start in finding support:

1800 RESPECT (73 77 32) - 24/7 Sexual violence helpline


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