Covid exodus failed to stem sexual abuse on Australian campuses

Campuses almost devoid of people nevertheless remained hotbeds of sexual harassment and assault

March 29, 2022
A shadow of a lady casts on the ground in Sydney to illustrate Covid exodus failed to stem sexual abuse on Australian campuses
Source: Getty

Sexual abuse persisted on Australian campuses that had been largely deserted by students, in a harrowing demonstration of the issue’s intractability.

University of Melbourne provost Nicola Phillips said that she had dealt with sexual misconduct on a “daily basis” since her arrival last September, when the city was under stay-at-home orders.

Since mid-2021, the university had pursued sexual misconduct cases involving 11 staff, three students and an external community member and had so far severed ties with seven of them.

Professor Phillips said that some of these cases had been historical. But while administrators had “intuitively” expected Covid to force more sexual abuse online, harassment and assaults remained prevalent on campus.

“Our students are clearly telling us this through surveys and formal complaints,” she said. “It would be complacent to imagine that the problem hadn’t continued, even though it may well have taken other forms.”

A Universities Australia survey of students at 38 institutions, framed as the biggest of its kind in the world, has revealed similar patterns. Eight per cent of respondents said that they had been harassed over the past 12 months, with 52 per cent of reported incidents occurring in core campus facilities such as libraries, lecture theatres, laboratories, offices and general spaces.

Another 25 per cent happened at hospitality, retail, sport and recreation venues and clubs and societies on and off campus. Six per cent took place in student accommodation, 6 per cent online and 4 per cent in private homes.

Almost 5 per cent of respondents said that they had been sexually assaulted since starting university, with about 23 per cent of reported incidents occurring in core campus locations. Clubs and societies, student accommodation, hospitality, shops and private homes were also common settings.

2016 survey found that 51 per cent of students had been harassed that year and 7 per cent sexually assaulted over two years. Harassment was particularly rife on public transport, while social events carried the highest risk of assault.

Universities Australia, which funded both surveys, stressed that the results were not directly comparable because of methodological differences and coronavirus. Just one-third of respondents in the second survey reported taking campus-based classes at the time.

Nevertheless, chair John Dewar said that the latest figures were a “source of great frustration” for both UA and universities. “All of the work we’ve done since the initial report would have led us to hope that we would see some significant improvement in prevalence rates. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

Professor Dewar said coronavirus had “changed the nature of the problem”, but whether for better or worse was unclear. He said the survey had been designed to examine sexual abuse “across a student’s life, on campus or at home”.

“This kind of behaviour can significantly affect [a student’s] life and career, both in the university and outside. It’s incumbent on us as a sector to do what we can to prevent it and…to support the students.”

Professor Phillips said that the sector was right to take some ownership of problems outside its immediate control. But the survey did not explain why on-campus abuse had remained so prevalent during lockdown. She said Melbourne planned more research to “get beneath the numbers and establish what exactly it is that people are experiencing”.

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