The Australian Human Rights Centre (AHRCentre) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) has launched On Safe Ground: A Good Practice Guide for Australian Universities.

The report draws on the findings of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Student Survey on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault released earlier this week and makes 18 recommendations, including the establishment of a national cross-university task force to focus on consistent policies, procedures and practices relating to sexual harassment and assaults on campus.

On Safe Ground is the first Australian report to thoroughly examine responses to sexual assault and harassment in a university setting and draws strongly on the experiences of students and international examples of university approaches to the issue.

President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Jacobs, launched the report today, restating his commitment to providing a safe, respectful and non-discriminatory environment for all students and staff.

On Safe Ground combines student perspectives and comparative research to offer Australian universities options and recommendations for meaningful cultural change to help address the issue of sexual violence,” Professor Jacobs said.

“We fully support the recommendations made by the AHRCentre and will be working with the Centre around implementation.”

Professor Andrea Durbach, Director of the AHRCentre and lead author, said the report urged Australian universities to acknowledge the essential contribution of the student voice in exposing, managing and reducing sexual violence.

On Safe Ground aims to provide Australian universities with a framework to adopt more proactive approaches to address the issue of sexual assault and harassment, in a manner that respects and protects the rights of all parties involved.

“It is important to recognise that the issue of prevalence in relation to sexual assault at universities is not the whole story. Rather, it is the institutional barriers to reporting and the overall culture surrounding the issue of university sexual assault and harassment that need to be addressed.

“There is no doubt that universities are increasingly more aware of the extent of the issue now and are working to address it but many of the strategies in place remain ad hoc or reactive. While they may address one issue – such as encouraging reports of sexual assault and harassment, they need to ensure the process is easy to access and to follow, and that appropriate support services are in place to assist students who do report.”

Professor Durbach added that without visible senior leadership in universities, meaningful engagement with students and a long-term commitment to addressing sexual assault and harassment, any policies adopted by universities would remain of limited value.

Sophie Johnstone from the National Union of Students said that for far too long the voices of students had been ignored on the issue of sexual violence and supported the recommendations made in On Safe Ground.

“Over the past two years, I’ve worked with Professor Durbach along with a number of students in providing insight to the report – that’s what gives On Safe Ground such gravity – because it places students and survivors at the heart of it,” Ms Johnstone said.

“It truly is a breath of fresh air to see such a thoughtful report and recommendations; this will go a long way in influencing best-practice response frameworks at universities and will help lead to a change in culture.

“Every single rape or sexual assault is a tragedy. There is no celebration or congratulations to be had. There is nothing to revel in having a few less sexual assaults than the university next door. Every university has an equal responsibility to tackle this.

“The National Union of Students welcomes On Safe Ground and urges universities to embrace the report."

On Safe Ground highlights six foundational principles that should underpin all Australian university policies and procedures regarding sexual assault and harassment, including:

  • Integrated and inclusive framework
  • Comprehensive, consistent and coordinated design and content
  • Accessible, transparent and enforceable processes
  • Resourced, interconnected and responsive support services
  • Collaborative links with external sexual assault services
  • Institutional commitment to a prevention framework

The report makes 18 recommendations which include:

  • the development by Australian universities of stand-alone policies for responding to sexual assault and harassment that include a prominent statement of express prohibition and clear definitions of proscribed conduct.
  • the establishment by Australian universities of formal student advisory mechanisms to enable substantive student engagement with university leadership in the formulation and evaluation of sexual assault and harassment policies, support services and prevention programs.
  • the establishment of integrated sexual violence support services on university campuses that provide holistic support (medical, counselling, academic) for victims of sexual assault and harassment.
  • the implementation by Australian universities and residential colleges of evidence-based sexual violence prevention education programs specifically designed for the university environment, relevant and applicable to diverse student groups, and delivered by professionally trained experts.
  • the establishment by Universities Australia of a national cross-university taskforce to implement the recommendations of the On Safe Ground report and the Australian Human Rights Commission report.

A copy of the On Safe Ground: A Good Practice Guide for Australian Universities is available here.

Read more about the report in The Guardian Australia.

Read an opinion piece by Professor Durbach and Dr Damian Powell here.