Ombudsman could order fee refunds over sexual misconduct claims

Australian universities say remit of proposed watchdog needs ‘detailed examination’

November 22, 2023
A woman holds her hand out in front of her face to say 'stop'
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The Australian government should establish a new national student ombudsman with “investigative and dispute resolution powers” on gender-based violence incidents in universities, including powers to recommend fees refunds, a plan emerging from the Universities Accord recommends.

A draft action plan by the review’s governance working group, published by education minister Jason Clare, says the government, in consultation with states and territories, “should establish a new national student ombudsman with investigative and dispute resolution powers to ensure domestic and international higher education students have an effective, trauma-informed complaints mechanism to use when they are not satisfied by their provider’s response”.

The powers of the ombudsman would include being able to recommend that an institution’s leadership “takes specific administrative steps to resolve complaints”, such as “refunding or re-crediting fees”.

The education minister should also create, says the plan, “a new national higher education code to prevent and respond to gender-based violence that will set requirements for embedding the whole-of-institution approach”.

Rules should include those covering “embedding evidence-based primary prevention activities and respectful relationships education”, and “critical incident management, reporting and reports handling”, says the action plan.

A statement from Mr Clare’s office said ministers were briefed by the working group and by “victim-survivor advocates”, and ministers “agreed to release the draft action plan for further consultation and detailed design work”.

Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said that her members were “firmly committed to building on the many initiatives already in place at universities to combat this scourge” of sexual misconduct. The grouping released a charter on the issue last week.

“Our charter is aligned with many of the actions and functions of the government’s draft action plan to address sexual harm and the proposed national student ombudsman,” Ms Jackson said.

“An ombudsman with responsibility for student safety has been the subject of consultations with relevant parties and that has been a good process. The sector’s views have been heard.”

However, Ms Jackson said that the remit of the proposed ombudsman “seemingly extends beyond the issue of student safety to include HECS [student funding] administration and course administration”.

“This would constitute a significant reform and detailed examination is appropriate. It would be inefficient to create duplication and overlap with existing regulation and regulatory bodies that deal with these issues,” Ms Jackson added.

“We appreciate government’s commitment to consult further. It’s important we get this right.”

Patty Kinnersly, chief executive of Our Watch – a non-profit organisation working to prevent violence against women – and expert adviser to the Universities Accord working group, said: “This plan can be the catalyst for ending gendered violence in our university communities. It outlines immediate actions, such as improving support for victim-survivors, while also working to actively change the culture that allows this violence to occur.   

“Gender-based violence is preventable if we address and challenge the root causes of gender inequality and disrespectful attitudes that exist in university systems, structures and policies.  

“The good news is that we are not starting from scratch. Universities have done some good work in addressing gendered violence to date, but this action plan will improve consistency, build on existing momentum and connect this work to the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children.”

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