OPINION: At its heart, the disturbing prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on the campuses of Australia’s universities is about power – and powerlessness. 

It is those who have traditionally held the least power on our campuses – women, students with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and LGBTIQ students – who are the most likely to experience the enduring harm of sexual assault or harassment, at a time when the promises of higher education are creating the foundation for their careers and opportunities for their adult lives.

With the release in the last few days of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s national student survey findings, the focus has largely been on determining the degree and nature of the problem. To establish the extent of university sexual assault and harassment is a critical step, with the survey released this week revealing high numbers of students affected by sexual assault or sexual harassment in the past 12 months.

But, by focusing on the numbers, we risk missing the patterns within. Whatever lofty expectations we might have of our universities, the release of this week’s survey shows that the same degrading attitudes and behaviours that sadly continue to permeate our society – and fuel sexual assault and harassment – are also evident within our campus gates. It suggests that we, as institutions, have failed to recognise and combat the gender inequality, gender-based discrimination and other underlying causes of the sexual violence. Likewise, does it suggest that we have failed to examine the culture in which these statistics arise? Armed with this knowledge, how do we now change this prevailing culture?

We believe the solution lies in critically examining our own institutional structures – and to begin to realign our institutional values with good practice.

For a start, we need internal systems and policies that genuinely reflect and speak to our diverse student population. That means effective and comprehensive student participation in relevant policy development and decision-making on issues that affect their lives, such as sexual violence. By engaging and listening to student representatives on how to respond to this issue, how to effectively support students who are harmed, and how to prevent sexual assault and harassment, we can better formulate policies that resonate with students, leading to more effective outcomes.

We must also clearly articulate what behaviour will not be tolerated and reflect this across all university policies. Similarly, we need disciplinary processes and appropriate sanctions that are robustly and consistently enforced.

And we need to look at prevention. That alcohol contributes to an environment in which sexual violence may occur on campus, in colleges, and in other places of university-sponsored residential accommodation, is well documented. This demands a review of the pricing, availability and the service of alcohol, in much the same way as the responsible service and consumption of alcohol is regulated and policed elsewhere.

Cultural change is not an event. We know it is a long, winding, and uncertain road. So, what should we be doing immediately?

Universities are, rightly, committing millions of dollars to various counselling, prevention and support programs and services. To get this right, we need to think holistically. This means more than a trauma response; we need integrated sexual violence support services on campus that offer medical, counselling, legal, academic and accommodation support in one location.

These services must be visible to all and, with our sexual assault and harassment policies and as with our reporting processes, they must be clearly and prominently signposted so that every student is reached.

Finally, at a national level, Australia’s 39 universities can achieve much more collectively than by operating within institutional and geographical silos. The formation of a cross-university taskforce would allow us to align policies and responses and share the best ideas. And, by tracking progress, Australia-wide, via a regular independent national student survey we can identify if, how and where we are making headway.

Should we expect more of universities than other institutions or the wider community in combating sexual assault and harassment? We believe we should. Every year, nearly 1.4 million young women and men enter Australia’s universities. That’s a big responsibility and a major opportunity.

We have a duty of care to every single one of those students. That does not mean a duty to regulate the interactions between adults. But it does mean recognising the potential for harm and responding appropriately so that every student’s learning and living environment is safe and secure. As former chair of Universities Australia and vice-chancellor of Western Sydney University, Professor Barney Glover, said in 2016, the “damage caused by sexual harassment and sexual assault cannot be undone”.

There’s also something more fundamental at stake. Our universities are part of a sophisticated global knowledge system that constantly interrogates and investigates the world around us to identify and solve problems for the common good. That’s our mission. As universities, it is our job to seek to understand complex multifaceted challenges and to develop robust, evidence-based approaches to minimise harm and improve lives. With the substantial body of evidence and research now available, we are hopefully on track to affect lasting cultural change in relation to an issue of serious national concern. The findings of the national survey are a wake-up call. With the support of our universities, it offers a once in a generation opportunity to show leadership in the prevention of sexual violence and support for its victims. There is now no excuse to fail in our own back yards.

Professor Andrea Durbach is director of the Australian Human Rights Centre at UNSW and lead author of On Safe Ground: a good practice guide for Australian universities. Dr Damian Powell is the principal of Janet Clarke Hall in the University of Melbourne.

This opinion piece was first published in The Guardian.