A report commissioned by Universities Australia released on Wednesday found one in 20 (4.5%) students had been sexually assaulted since starting at university.

The National Student Safety Survey report also found one in two students (48%) had experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime. One in six (16%) had been sexually harassed since starting their studies, and one in 12 (81%) in the preceding 12 months.

Chair of Universities Australia, Professor John Dewar described the findings as “distressing, disappointing and confronting” and said the situation was “unacceptable”.

Wednesday’s report was the second national survey to explore rates of sexual assault and harassment among university students, following the Australian Human Rights Commission’s landmark Change the Course report in 2017.

The Change the Course survey found 1.6% of students reported having been sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 and/or 2016 in a university setting. One in five students (21%) reported having been sexually harassed in a university setting in 2015 and/or 2016.

Changes in methodology and the impact of COVID make it difficult to compare Wednesday’s report with findings in 2017. But it still shows the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment experienced by Australian university students has not markedly shifted.

Universities are this week reiterating many of the same catchphrases as after the 2017 report. They’re taking student feedback “very seriously” and adopting a “zero tolerance” approach to sexual violence. They’re also echoing many of the same commitments they made in 2017. This lack of substantive progress reflects the absence of robust enforcement mechanisms in regulatory oversight.

Students lack confidence in their institutions

The latest report found just 5.6% of students who had experienced sexual assault, and 3% who had experienced sexual harassment had made a formal report or complaint to their university. This is a deterioration from 2016 when the comparable reporting rates were still a troubling 13% and 6% respectively.

Of those who reported sexual assault in 2021, only 29.7% were satisfied with the university’s process. For those reporting sexual harassment, this went up to 41.3%. These figures indicate thousands of students are not seeking out or receiving the support they need following distressing incidents.

More than half of students participating in the survey knew “very little or nothing” about their university’s sexual assault and harassment policies and almost as many knew “nothing or very little” about where they could seek support or assistance within the university.

Submissions to the survey highlighted students’ lack of confidence in university responses and called for greater transparency around reporting avenues and disciplinary action.

What have universities done?

Australian universities are autonomous and self-regulating institutions. While they vary in size, resources and appetite to take on this difficult work, they all engage with students experiencing sexual assault and harassment.

Following the 2017 report, Universities Australia said

[…] universities had instigated 800-plus actions and initiatives targeting sexual violence.

Universities’ commitments have included: independent reviews of university policies, new sexual assault and harassment policies, online reporting tools and confidential data collection, increased respectful relationship and consent education, first responder and bystander training programs, enhanced access to counselling services and increased visibility of support and reporting pathways.

Some universities have been proactive in reporting on their institutions’ efforts in recent years. For instance UNSW’s Annual Report on Sexual Misconduct includes information on key institutional actions as well as data recording the status and outcome of each investigation.

But not all universities have been as transparent, and assessing whether universities have actually delivered on their commitments can be incredibly difficult.

Given universities’ independent status, Universities Australia has no authority to enforce good practice with their members and has not monitored or evaluated the implementation of their sector-wide guidance or resources.

What about the university regulator?

The national higher education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) – usually tasked with registering providers and accrediting courses – says it has

moved to ensure that all higher education providers are fostering safe environments and supporting students in need.

However, my PhD research indicates little support in the sector or among key stakeholders for TEQSA to lead this work. Research participants have suggested the regulator’s efforts have been impeded by resource constraints, insufficient expertise and an apparent reluctance to employ the regulatory tools at its disposal.

TEQSA used a complaints mechanism to investigate scenarios where students believed their university’s policies or procedures had failed them and breached legislated standards around well-being and safety.

Senate Estimates information that I’ve collated in my research indicates that this avenue has proven futile for complainants. The regulator investigated 21 such complaints between 2017–2020, mostly relating to universities. But in none did TEQSA find any reason to use its formal powers, such as placing conditions on a university’s registration. The strongest sanction applied by TEQSA has been “monitoring and annual reporting” of several universities.

While the average processing time for these complaints was almost six months, one case lodged by End Rape on Campus Australia in October 2019 was not finalised until June 2021. The organisation subsequently stopped recommending students use TEQSA’s complaints pathway.

In 2019 TEQSA endorsed university efforts to address sexual assault and harassment in a report to the education minister, after universities had self-reported their progress to the regulator. But later, in response to Senate Estimates questions on notice, TEQSA acknowledged it was aware of “discrepancies between the self-reported actions and the findings of the independent experts”.

Following this week’s report, TEQSA issued a statement saying it was “concerned” about the findings. That it has been monitoring university responses and is encouraging

[…] all registered providers to review their policies and procedures and ensure that information on sexual assault or sexual harassment prevention and response, including how students can access support services or institutional complaints frameworks, are shared with all their students.

Like university responses this week, this encouragement simply appears to be more of the same.

We need effective external oversight

After the Change the Course report, advocates proposed the establishment of an independent expert-led taskforce. This would have overseen university (and residential college) efforts to better manage and prevent sexual assault and harassment and enhance institutional accountability.

A taskforce, backed by government, could have provided the external leadership and authority to lead this work, but was stymied in late 2018 following a ministerial reshuffle.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who led the 2016 survey, has made clear in her response to this week’s report that monitoring and accountability will be critical to achieving change. Such monitoring and accountability is not being delivered within the sector, nor by the national regulator.

It’s now time to revisit the taskforce proposal or consider a similar external oversight mechanism.

The Conversation

Allison Henry, PhD candidate, Faculty of Law & Justice, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.