Changing course, changing the culture


It has been almost a year since the Change the Course report revealed the shockingly high rates of sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities.

While a wide range of action has been taken since to improve student safety, there remain questions about its  effectiveness.


See also the experts’ view: An end to sexual assault and harassment on campuses starts with a cultural shift 

The report, published by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), revealed that in 2016, 1.6 per cent of surveyed students had been sexually assaulted in a university context, and 26 per cent had experienced sexual harassment.

The AHRC gave a list of recommendations to address key issues, which Australian universities have been working to implement. Mixed results have emerged, with an audit by the AHRC showing scope for improvement at all universities.

At Monash University, 1.5 per cent of respondents had experienced sexual assault in a university setting, and 28 per cent had been subject to sexual harassment in 2016. Since then, the university has introduced several initiatives to address the recommendations.

Training programs have been developed in collaboration with the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA). The campaign Respect. Now. Always. has also been created, made up of chancellors, student representatives and heads of residential colleges from across Australia.

But the effectiveness of the measures taken is uncertain. The AHRC audit suggests there is a lack of evaluation strategies and more staff training is required.

A consent video developed for students at Monash University has been viewed fewer than 3000 times, despite more than 73,000 students enrolled.

In response to the recommendations, Monash has campaigned to increase awareness around reporting processes for sexual assault and harassment, encouraging victims to come forward.

A Freedom of Information request has revealed that fewer incidents have been reported to Monash University since the recommendations were given by the AHRC. Between July and December 2016, there were eight reports of sexual assault to Monash. In contrast, there were only four reports in 2017.

However, sexual harassment reports have increased in the past two years, with two reports made between July and December 2016, and 12 reports in 2017.

SECASA offers counselling services two days a week at the Clayton campus, and one day a week at the Caulfield campus. Although the university’s initiatives have encouraged victims to seek support, there has not been an increase in demand for counselling services.

SECASA manager Ms Carolyn Worth said that any change to numbers in clients would take time. Students in Monash residential colleges had been provided with training, which should encourage use of counselling services, she said.

Cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment reported to Monash University. Source: Freedom of Information investigation


Rates of sexual assault and harassment reported to Monash University. Rates have been averaged across years due to the nature of the information provided. Source: Freedom of Information investigation

A media representative for Monash University said 1208 residents had completed the Sexpectations program run by Monash Residential Services (MRS) as at April 2018. Students are also given a Safe and Respectful Communities card, which “outlines MRS’ standards, expectations and commitment to providing a safe environment for all residents”.

Meanwhile, students living in residential colleges have reportedly been told not to talk to media outlets as Monash Residential Services did not want “untrained” students making statements.

Former Monash University student Emma Hunt said she continued to deal with the trauma of experiencing rape in a university context. Ms Hunt was attending an orientation camp in her first year and was raped in one of the cabins by a fellow student.

She said that stopping students from speaking about sexual violence led to further victim-blaming, misconceptions and misjudgement.

Domestic Violence Victoria CEO Fiona McCormack. Image supplied.

Domestic Violence Victoria CEO Fiona McCormack is an advocate for open conversation regarding sexual violence. Ms McCormack said organisations sometimes shut the discussion down to minimise risk, but they should be clear about what they were doing to address the issues at hand.

Open conversation encouraged reporting and feelings of safety, and “silencing people” restricted the ability to create change, she said.

On-campus living is presented as ideal for international students, who make education Australia’s third biggest export industry.

Ms Worth said Monash’s 19,000 international students were being targeted in cases of sexual assault. She said international students sometimes went to SECASA seeking STI tests and the morning-after pill. Because they feared rejection from their family in their home country, they generally did not report their experience to authorities.

Monash criminology Professor Jude McCulloch, from the Monash Gender and Family Violence Program, said international students might be targeted by people they trusted from their home country, as well as the broader community. They could benefit from education about culturally appropriate behaviour and ways to report incidents, she said.

However, there are few penalties for those students accused of sexual assault or harassment. Since July 2016, one Monash student has been expelled due to sexual assault. Nationwide, an FOI investigation by Channel 7 revealed that between 2011 and 2016, only six students were expelled out of 575 sexual misconduct cases.

Most students who have been sexually assaulted on campus live or study in the same place as their perpetrator. If no action is taken, the victim may experience increased levels of fear, as they may encounter their attacker on campus.

Deakin University criminology lecturer Dr Mary Iliadis. Image supplied.

Deakin University criminology lecturer Dr Mary Iliadis said holding perpetrators to account at a university level would be a significant move. This would effectively shift the blame for misconduct to the perpetrator, rather than the victim.

Dr Iliadis said that on top of penalties such as expulsion or suspension, getting the perpetrator to engage in “serious support that enables them to understand the complexity and seriousness of their offending behaviours”, would help bring change.

In addition to ensuring perpetrator accountability, action should include mandatory participation by students in online sexual consent modules, and lecturers could make the expectations of the university known in the first class of the year, she said.

Monash University is currently looking at the possibility of making content training mandatory for all incoming students . They have also created a Respect. Now. Always. app to provide students with information.

Academic staff were briefed on the Change the Course report in October, but there has been no follow-up, according to Dr Terri MacDonald of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). The NTEU has also questioned the effectiveness of the Respect. Now. Always. app in achieving awareness of services available to victims, because all students would have to download it for information to be widely communicated.

Monash University has been “one of the few universities” that has created new jobs to address the recommendations, Dr MacDonald said. She said that although the implementation of recommendations was “hit and miss”, the university was making positive changes without giving current staff an extra workload.

As a survivor of sexual assault, Ms Hunt said that it is “humbling and assuring” to see the issue of sexual assault and harassment in a university context at the centre of public conversation. The next step is to ensure all victims are spoken about, including those who are male, LGBTIQ, Indigenous, disabled and from different cultural backgrounds.

Sexual misconduct can occur in a variety of circumstances and this should be discussed in training sessions, Ms Hunt said. In addition, she said the effects of sexual misconduct should be made widely known across workplaces and tertiary institutions.

Students should be made aware that they would not be forced to report to police, but that action would be taken to ensure their safety and wellbeing, she said. The impact of the Change the Course report will only be seen in the future.

“You have to start somewhere,” she said.

This story was first published in Mojo News.