Sexual abuse: Australia to establish student safety ombudsman

New body will have investigative powers and ability to settle complaints when universities behave ‘unreasonably’ – including recommending fee refunds

February 23, 2024
Ballarat, Australia, March 15, 2017 Hundreds of colourful ribbons attached to the fence of St Patricks Catholic Cathedral in support of survivors of child sexual abuse, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia
Source: iStock/slovegrove

Australia will appoint an independent national student ombudsman to tackle sexual abuse in higher education institutions, under an action plan agreed by federal, state and territory education ministers.

Universities, colleges and student accommodation providers will be subject to a national code to combat gender-based harassment and violence, and will be required to “demonstrate improvement” through increased transparency and scrutiny. Executives and governing boards will be charged with driving a “whole-of-organisation approach” to the issue, while accommodation providers – including residential colleges – face a new regulatory framework.

The action plan, approved on 23 February, addresses one of the five “priority actions” recommended in the Universities Accord panel’s interim report in July. The panel’s final report is due to be released imminently.

“Sexual violence continues to occur in university communities at significant rates,” the document says. “[It] is deeply rooted in gender-based power inequalities, rigid gender norms and gender-based discrimination.”

Education minister Jason Clare said universities were more than places of work and study. “They are also places where people live, and we need to ensure they are safe,” he said.

“According to a recent survey, one in 20 students experienced sexual assault since they started university and one in six has been sexually harassed. Not enough has been done to tackle sexual violence in our universities and for too long students haven’t been heard. That now changes.”

Research has uncovered evidence of rampant abuse in residential colleges. Elsewhere on university campuses, gender-based misconduct occurs at broadly similar levels as elsewhere in the community, data suggest.

But commentators say universities must be exemplars – a point echoed in the action plan. “The higher education sector has a unique opportunity to drive social change at scale, with 1.5 million students, over 130,000 staff and internationally recognised research expertise,” it says.

“Many within the sector are already pursuing this opportunity. Institutions, in partnership with students, staff, their communities and subject matter experts, can and must do more.”

Mr Clare said his government would prepare legislation to establish the ombudsman’s office, which would field students’ complaints about their institutions’ handling of issues including sexual misconduct. He said the ombudsman’s role would include reviewing institutional decisions, recommending “specific steps” to resolve complaints and stepping in when institutions were “acting unreasonably”.

The proposed ombudsman will have investigative powers and will offer a “restorative engagement” process between students and institutions, the action plan says. The office will share information with regulators to “identify and respond to systemic risk [and enable] further compliance action if necessary”.

Representative group Universities Australia was wary of an independent ombudsman when the idea was floated last November. The chief executive at the time, Catriona Jackson, said a proposal to give the ombudsman the power to order fee refunds would extend the agency’s remit beyond student safety to loan and course administration.

“It would be inefficient to create duplication and overlap with existing regulation and regulatory bodies that deal with these issues,” she warned.

Education ministers appear to have brushed off these concerns. The ombudsman will be able to “recommend” steps including fee refunds and changes to institutional policies and practices, the action plan says.

New Universities Australia boss Luke Sheehy welcomed the ombudsman proposal and the other measures in the action plan. “As a sector we have not shied away from dealing with this major issue, but we can do more,” he said.

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