Australia’s oldest regional university has contacted the human rights watchdog to audit its residential colleges, in the wake of two damning reports into sexual abuse and hazing at the nation’s higher education institutions.
The University of New England says the investigation, by the Australian Human Rights Commission, will be part of a “culture change project” that will take years to complete. “This isn’t something we can change overnight,” said vice-chancellor Annabelle Duncan.
“We’re in it for the long haul, [and] we welcome support wherever we can get it.”
The analysis, to start this month, will review processes and initiatives targeting sexual assault and harassment in UNE’s seven residential colleges. It comes after the AHRC’s Change the Course report last year found that over half of Australia’s university students had experienced sexual harassment within the past 12 months, with more than one in 15 claiming to have been sexually assaulted.
The report highlighted residential colleges as epicentres of bad behaviour and recommended independent reviews to find out why. So far, UNE is the only university that has appointed the AHRC itself to conduct such a review.
Professor Duncan said that the AHRC had a good overview of the issues and had managed to obtain comment from victims who had been reluctant to speak about their experiences in the past. “We think we’ve got a reasonable idea of what needs to be done, but it’s always useful to have another pair of eyes.
“Is there something we’ve missed? Is there something that could be done in a different way? Will our students tell them things they might not be so comfortable telling us directly? We should also get further insight into our incident reporting processes so that we can deal with issues as they arise, rather than when the trail has gone cold.”
The examination will also cover past sexually related incidents. In February, activist group End Rape on Campus published claims of rape and other forms of sexual assault and said a serial perpetrator had been given a “college leadership position” and “a key that allowed him to access all rooms in the college”.
EROC’s Red Zone report also related details of disgusting rituals and a sexually predatory culture at St Albert’s College, the only residence not owned by UNE. But Professor Duncan said St Albert’s was cooperating and she did not anticipate the type of struggle that the University of Sydney had experienced in bringing its independent residential colleges into line.
“I don’t think we’re going to have that trouble here,” she said. “It may be because we’re small. It’s easier to work together in a small community. All but one of our colleges belong to UNE, so we basically set the rules.”