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Australian unis ‘failing to protect’ international students from sexual assault

More culturally-appropriate support is needed to protect international students from sexual violence at Australian universities and help survivors, a senate inquiry has heard. 

Senators heard universities are not doing enough to provide specific protections from sexual violence for international students. Photo: Unsplash

Senators heard there is little culturally-appropriate support available for non-Australian students

Representatives from the higher education sector and student safety advocates appeared in front of senators responsible for examining Australia’s sexual consent laws. 

They said that universities are not doing enough to provide specific support and protections for international students. 

Sharna Bremner, founder and director of End Rape on Campus Australia, told committee members there is an almost “total absence of prevention and education materials directed at students that are disproportionately experiencing violence on campus”, including international students. 

A 2021 survey found 9% of international students had been sexually harassed in a university context. 

Senators heard there is little culturally-appropriate support available for non-Australian students. 

“A really key concern we see among international student cohorts at the moment is not knowing whether or not the behaviours they’re experiencing are cultural differences or illegal behaviours,” said Bremner. 

“A lot of them are too scared to report to their institution for fear it may impact them or their visa somehow, particularly students whose parents have saved up a lot of money to send them to uni in Australia.” 

“We see the recruitment materials in languages other than English, but it’s very rare that sexual assault support materials are provided in languages other than English,” she added. 

Committee chair senator Nita Green described the testimonies as “profoundly disturbing”.

In the same hearing, Catriona Jackson, CEO of Universities Australia, was grilled about the body’s decision to axe plans to develop sexual assault resources for university students, for which the federal government had allocated AUS $1.5 million. 

Jackson denied claims that some vice-chancellors objected to explicit content in the planned resources.

She instead told senators the initial plan had been axed as “it wasn’t going to have the cut-through that we had hoped it might have”. 

Instead the body has produced a “good practice guide” for practitioners receiving disclosures of sexual assault or harassment. This piece of work was criticised by senators and other witnesses for its similarities to work previously produced by Our Watch, an organisation focused on preventing violence against women.  

“It’s a bit worrying that’s where $1.5 million goes, to basically recreate an old document and give it in a new light as opposed to having anything new or relevant in it to the times we’re living in,” said Bailey Riley, president of the National Union of Students.  

Jackson said Universities Australia’s guide had drawn “very heavily” on expert advice but was “fundamentally different”. 

“They do not care, I believe”

“We have provided a really detailed, very practical, very hands-on guide that builds on the very good work done by Our Watch but is not in any sense identical to it,” she said. 

Riley later told senators, “[Universities] Australia has a complete lack of any will at all to engage with students in this sector and also to actually change anything or bring anything new to consent education or sexual assault or violence on campus. They do not care, I believe.”

In a statement released in August, Universities Australia chair David Lloyd said members had conceded that “much more is required of us collectively”.

“Our members are committed to continuing to run tailored and individual campus-based activities in 2024, similar to initiatives such as the existing ‘Respect at Uni Week’ delivered by Victorian universities,” he added.

“We recognise that one-size-fits-all intervention strategies do not translate to broad benefit in this most difficult of domains.”

He also confirmed that the membership body would revisit and advance a student safety survey, similar to the one carried out in 2021.

In the same hearing, witnesses criticised higher education regulator TEQSA for failing to address complaints about universities’ handling of sexual violence reports.

“Our experiences with TEQSA over several years were so bad that we had to stop recommending that as an option to students, because we found that TEQSA’s processes were so harmful without any outcome that it would be incredibly unethical of our organisation to keep recommending that as an option,” Bremner said.

The higher education sector’s handling of sexual violence was also discussed in the recently released Universities Accord interim report, which described approaches to reducing harassment and violence on campuses as “inadequate”.

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