The Change the Course report, compiled by the Australian Human Rights Commission from a survey of 30,000 students across Australia’s 39 universities, found 22% of international students had experienced some form of sexual harassment. Additionally, 5.1% had been sexually assaulted and 1.4% in a university setting.
“The report presents a challenging and at times harrowing view of the extent of sexual harassment and sexual assault on Australian university campuses,” Western Sydney University vice-chancellor Barney Glover told The PIE News.
“There is nothing to revel in having a few less sexual assaults than the university next door”
“It shows very clearly that much work needs to be done to improve the culture of our campuses, to raise awareness of our policies and procedures, and to encourage reporting and effective responses when these circumstances occur.”
National Union of Students president Sophie Johnston warned any variances from university to university in the prevalence of assaults and harassment should not be treated as a success.
“Students will not accept a race to the bottom. And [we] will not accept hearing universities congratulate themselves on being slightly below the national averages,” she said at the report’s release.
“Every single rape and sexual assault is a tragedy. There are no celebrations or congratulations to be had. There is nothing to revel in having a few less sexual assaults than the university next door.”
However, while the report appears to indicate international students are less likely to be victims of sexual abuse, some observers have pointed out the results are out-of-step with common expectations.
Particularly, many felt that as international students are generally more susceptible to exploitation due to a lack of awareness, the survey should reflect a higher prevalence of harassment and assault within that population than the domestic cohort.
Kate Jenkins, sex discrimination commissioner at HRCJ, defended the accuracy of the report’s results and sample base, adding that while many outcomes fell in line with expectations, there were others that also did not.
“For international students, while it did identify that it was a slightly lower rate [of sexual assault and harassment], it’s still concerning that it happens,” Jenkins said.
Within the report, she said, there were indications that international students experienced a significantly more varied set of barriers preventing them from reporting incidents, therefore meaning they did not appear within the system.
Among those barriers, a lack of understanding of what constitutes assault or harassment, isolation from traditional networks and concerns that reporting an incident may affect a student’s visa, were highlighted.
Shame and not wanting others to know was also twice as likely to prevent an international student from reporting a sexual assault than a domestic student.
“International students who were sexually harassed were more likely than domestic students to say that they did not know where to make a report or that they felt to embarrassed to report the incident,” Jenkins told The PIE News.
“These results were mirrored in the context of sexual assault, where international students were more likely than domestic students to indicate that they felt too embarrassed or ashamed to report or that they did not know who to report to.”
The obstacles seem to have played a significant role in silencing many students, with only 6% of international respondents who experienced sexual harassment choosing to seek support from their university, and 18% of those who were sexually assaulted, the survey found.
ISANA, the peak body for international student services, expressed particular concerns with the findings that over a quarter of reported sexual assaults on international students had occurred on public transport.
“We strongly recommend universities work closely with state transport authorities to improve safety on public transport and at public transport hubs and transit stops,” ISANA president Mary Ann Seow said.
“Public transport is the main mode of transport for international students in Australia and it is unacceptable that students should feel threatened.”
The Council of International Students Australia expressed disappointment that international students were given only a “cursory glance” within the report and called on universities to improve the gaps within their services for international students.
“Public transport is the main mode of transport for international students in Australia and it is unacceptable that students should feel threatened”
“This report makes it clear that Australian universities need to do much more to address the specific needs of international students when it comes to reporting sexual assault and abuse,” CISA national president Bijay Sapkota said in a statement.
Both ISANA and CISA praised the report’s recommendation to provide information that is accessible for international students as well as others from diverse backgrounds.
In response to the report, Universities Australia released a 10-point action plan to tackle sexual harassment and assault, including respectful relationships education for university students, new principles for interaction between postgraduate students and staff, and a follow-up survey in three years.
In the lead up to the report’s release, Universities Australia also announced the launch of an interim national support line for students to complement existing counselling services offered by universities.
“Universities want to send a clear message that sexual harassment and sexual assault are not acceptable. Not in universities – not anywhere,” Universities Australia chair Margaret Gardner said.
If you need support, help is available.
- National university support line: 1800 572 224 (From July 31 to November 30, 2017)
- 1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732
- Lifeline: 131114
- Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636