The time for decisive action on campus assault is now: Tanya Plibersek

The time for decisive action on campus assault is now.

This week marks a year since the Human Rights Commission released its Change the Course report. The disturbing report found there are too many sexual assaults happening, too many are going unreported, and nowhere near enough is being done to prevent and punish this abhorrent behaviour.

More than half of university students were sexually harassed in 2016.  Only 13 per cent of campus sexual assaults are reported to universities. Of the 575 official complaints reported over the past five years – including 145 reported rapes – only six students were expelled.

Thirty years ago I was a women’s officer at the University of Technology Sydney. And thirty years ago we saw the same kinds of complaints, and heard the same kinds of responses from universities and residential colleges.

Some universities have taken decisive action and are making great progress, but change needs to happen faster.

Ending violence and harassment on university campuses is an absolute priority. A year on from the Human Rights Commission’s report, I would expect every university to be well underway with putting all the report’s recommendations in place.

Earlier this year I met with advocates from End Rape on Campus, Fair Agenda, Hunting Ground Australia, and the National Union of Students who are calling for an expert-led, independent task force to track and assess what universities are doing to end assault and harassment on their campuses. Following the meeting, I wrote to the Education Minister urging a swift bipartisan response. It’s time for the Government to take action and establish an independent taskforce.

Universities should have the same responsibility to provide a safe environment for their students as schools do for their pupils and workplaces do for their employees. Students need a safe environment to learn in. You can’t be expected to succeed academically if you’re being harassed in class or fear for your safety on campus. And the university harassers will go on to be the workplace harassers. We need to stop this behaviour early.

I’m not prepared to allow thirty more years of excuses and delays. There are certain minimum standards I believe all universities should be required to have in place.

Every university in Australia should introduce world class sexual violence prevention and education programs. There should be a standard reporting model for sexual assault and harassment at universities, including residential colleges.  Universities should provide support services, counselling and trained response staff to meet their students’ needs.

International students can be particularly vulnerable so universities need to make sure they’re aware of their rights and can access appropriate support.

If we’re going to reduce rates of assault and harassment, we need to track what’s happening. Education providers should publicly report their complaint numbers.

And if education providers or colleges aren’t handling incidents properly, students need an easy way to make complaints.  Providers must be held accountable.

Sexual assault and harassment aren’t just problems on university campuses. I want to make sure young women doing TAFE courses and apprenticeships have the same protections available. All post-secondary education providers should need to meet these minimum standards.

Residential colleges have a particularly bad reputation. I’ve been clear about Labor’s position on this issue. Put simply: if residential colleges can’t provide a safe environment, universities should make them. If universities can’t ensure colleges are safe, they should sever links with them. If universities and colleges refuse to fulfil their duty of care, governments must make them. If a Labor government needs to force colleges to do the right thing by their students and staff, we will.

Thirty years on from my time at university, a movement has been built to end campus assault. Governments and education providers have a responsibility to take strong action so things finally change.

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