The 2021 National Student Safety Survey (NSSS), released on March 23, shows that sexual harassment and assault is widespread on university campuses.
The survey, conducted by the Social Research Centre and supported by Universities Australia, received 43,819 responses. One in six said they had been sexually harassed since starting at university, with non-binary students (22.4%) and transgender students (14.7%) experiencing the most.
One in 20 said they had been sexually assaulted since starting university, with transgender and non-binary students again the biggest cohort.
The survey also collected data on where incidences of sexual harassment and sexual assault were taking place: 43.3% of sexual harassment took place in general campus settings and 25.8% of sexual assaults took place in clubs and societies events and spaces.
One in two students who had been sexually harassed said they knew some or all the perpetrators. Two in three students knew some of the perpetrators involved in their sexual assault.
While the latest results indicate that sexual harassment and assault incidences are lessening compared to the 2016 results, it would be wrong to deduce that things are improving.
First, the pandemic shut down many universities, meaning that many students were either partially or wholly taking classes online. This would reduce opportunities to be sexually harassed or assaulted.
Second, there were also changes in how the questions were framed in the latest survey compared to the previous one.
Third, universities have been trying to drive changes since Universities Australia commissioned the 2016 survey.
Universities Australia, which represents 39 universities, responded to the survey’s findings saying it was pushing for measures including: a partnership with Our Watch, a state and territory-funded not-for-profit organisation aimed at preventing violence against women and children; training student leaders on how to respond to disclosures of sexual harassment and sexual assault; developing programs to better respond to cyber abuse; developing with the Department of Social Services a violence prevention campaign for campuses in Orientation Week 2023; and reviewing 2018 guidelines for universities on how to respond to sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Universities Australia chair Professor John Dewar said: “We know sexual harassment and sexual assault continue to occur in university communities, but it is not limited to campuses”. He said the results are “distressing, disappointing and confronting” and that “every person who attends university has the right to believe they will be treated with respect, dignity and fairness".
The National Union of Students Queer/LGBTI group said the survey “contained some extremely troubling statistics”. It said "queer students are disproportionately affected … but are rarely the focus of university policies" and called on universities to implement a queer-inclusive approach in its responses.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Sexual assault in Australia report, published in August 2020, indicated that some of the most at-risk groups were people with disability, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse or intersex. The 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics; Personal Safety Survey found that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 25 men experienced sexual assault since the age of 15.