Distressing results from a landmark national report on sexual harassment and assault at Australian universities have rocked the higher education community.
While survey data found international students were less likely to have been harassed or assaulted in a university setting, the report raised concerns over international students’ understanding of sexual harassment and assault.
The report, commissioned by Universities Australia and conducted by Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), surveyed more than 30,000 students from 39 of Australia’s universities and revealed more than half of the survey’s participants had experienced or had been affected by sexual harassment in 2016.
The AHRC report also found 1.6 per cent of students surveyed were sexually assaulted in a university setting, including travel to and from university, on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016.
Other conclusions from the national survey included a significant number of under-reporting of such cases — both by domestic and international students — and a need for universities to do more work on prevention, response, and building a culture of respect.
The national survey was exclusive to universities and did not include vocational education or ELICOS institutions.
Sexual harassment and assault of international students
While more than half of the survey’s participants admitted to having been sexually harassed in 2016, it was revealed that “domestic students (27%) were slightly more likely than international students (22%) to have been sexually harassed in a university setting”.
Sexual harassment was indicated as occurring most often on public transport during commutes to and from university, according to international students surveyed. Incidents of sexual harassment most often took the form of inappropriate staring or leering that made students feel uncomfortable.
International students were also less likely to have been sexually assaulted, according to the report. Of those surveyed, 5.1 per cent of international students admitted to having been sexually assaulted in 2015 and/or 2016 compared to 7.4 per cent of domestic students who admitted to being sexually assaulted.
Although statistics on sexual harassment and assault of international students appeared to skew slightly less than their domestic counterparts, international students’ understanding of what defines sexual harassment and assault may also have affected survey results.
International student experiences documented in the report indicated that some were not sure if behaviours exhibited by their perpetrators were considered harassment or part of Australian culture:
“Sukhon is an international PhD student and is new to Australia. In her first few meetings with her supervisor, he kissed her on the lips. Sukhon is unsure of whether this is a part of Australian culture or inappropriate of her supervisor.”
Other international students, meanwhile, downplayed the severity of their experiences:
“Althea was an international student, living on campus, who was sexually assaulted when she stayed the night at a friend’s residential unit. She was offered a mattress on the floor by the Residential Adviser (RA). However, during the night the RA removed Althea’s clothes, groped her and tried to pressure her into having sex. Following the assault, Althea told her friends who said it was not assault as the RA had not raped her.”
The AHRC defines sexual harassment as “any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated”. Sexual assault is also defined by the AHRC as “when a person is forced, coerced or tricked into sexual acts against their will or without their consent, including when they have withdrawn their consent”.
Seeking support at university
International students were more likely than domestic students to seek support from their university after experiencing sexual assault or harassment, the survey found.
Six per cent of international students who experienced sexual harassment and 18 per cent of international students who experienced sexual assault sought support from their universities in relation to their most recent incident.
Conversely, five per cent of international students surveyed made a formal report or complaint about their experience of sexual assault to the university, compared with nine per cent of domestic students.
The survey also revealed that many international students were not aware of their university’s policies on sexual harassment and assault. Furthermore, it was revealed that while many international students were aware of the support services available to them, they also did not know where to go for help or to file complaints.
Higher education industry responds
The results of the landmark survey have rocked the higher education community.
The Council of International Students Australia’s (CISA) National President Bijay Sapkota called on universities to “do much more to address the specific needs of international students when it comes to reporting sexual assault and abuse”.
The International Student Advisers’ Network of Australia (ISANA) said the data provided by the AHRC emphasised the need for universities to address “concerns and misconceptions amongst their international student community and provide the support they need”.
“With international students more likely to seek support from their universities, it is important that the services [at universities] are culturally appropriate and that all staff are trained to meet their cultural and linguistic differences,” ISANA said in its press release.
University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis described the survey data as “disturbing” in a video message.
Monash Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Susan Elliott said Monash was “committed to creating a safe environment on and off campus for all students, staff and the wider community” in a video statement.
La Trobe University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Dewar, also issued similar sentiments in a joint statement with La Trobe’s Student Union presidents over behaviours identified.
“[S]ome people wrongly believe it’s OK to behave in this way, be it in a university lecture hall, on public transport, or the local community,” they said.
“It’s not OK. Sexual assault and sexual harassment shouldn’t happen here at La Trobe University. It shouldn’t happen at all.”
In an interview with Meld, University Australia’s Chief Executive, Belinda Robinson, believed that sexual assault and harassment was not solely a university problem but a societal one. She reassured international students and called on education institutions, government and communities to work together in preventing further cases of sexual assault and harassment.
“It’s really important that international students understand and know that they are going to get the support and backing from not only their educational institutions but also the government,” she said.
What are the next steps from here?
The national report has included nine recommendations for Australia’s universities to ensure that learning grounds remain safe and that a culture of respect is governed among students and staff. These nine recommendations include:
- Creating an advisory body consisting of different representatives within the university that can assist Vice-Chancellors to ensure the nine recommendations are taken
- Developing an action plan addressing the drivers of sexual assault and harassment, prevent it from happening and educating staff and students about these issues
- Increase awareness of support services and reporting processes to all staff and students
- Commission an independent, expert-led review of university policies and response pathways in relation to cases of sexual assault and harassment
- Conduct internal assessments to identify staff members and student representatives within their institutions most likely to receive reports of sexual assault and harassment
- Ensure any disclosures and reports of sexual assault and harassment is collected and stored confidentially and used for the improvement of processes
- Conduct an audit of university counselling services within six months of the national report
- Engaging an independent body to conduct the same survey to its students at three year intervals to track progress
- Residential colleges and university residences to commission independent, expert-led review of the factors contributing to sexual assault and harassment in their settings
While recommendations outlined do not specifically mention international students, they do advocate for university support services and training of personnel to include cultural sensitivity and diverse languages.
Universities have already begun to take action.
If this article has distressed you, or if you have experienced any form of sexual harassment or assault, please call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). The line provides counselling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
If you have been sexually harassed, you can also make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission by calling its Infoline on 1300 656 419.
For Victorian-based individuals, reports can also be made to the Sexual Assault Crisis Line by calling 1800 806 292 or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Specialist help is also available by calling the National University Support Line on 1800 572 224.