University student representatives say they feel left in the dark in the lead up to the release of results from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) national survey into sexual assault and harassment in universities.
Student representatives, including Wom*n’s Officers, have been barred from viewing the substantive results of the AHRC survey prior to the official release on 1 August. This is despite the University being given access to the results on 25 July, a full week before the public release.
Kate Jenkins, the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner and the driving force behind the report, told Honi, “the Commission provided Vice Chancellors with embargoed, confidential copies of the national report and their institutional data on 25 July because we expect them to consider our recommendations and the resources they’ll need to respond to them in a timely manner.”
Student representatives such as the University’s Wom*n’s Officers, who are often a first port of call for survivors reporting sexual assault on campus, will also need to respond to an expected influx of disclosures following the report’s release in a timely manner. Unlike the universities, however, they will not be privy to the report’s findings in advance nor able to prepare their messaging accordingly, and the student consultation process leading up to the report’s release has been tenuous.
AHRC confuses student briefing process
The National Union of Students (NUS) had initially pushed for student representatives to be briefed by their institutions prior to the 1 August release of the survey. Several student organisations, such as the University of Queensland Union, Curtin Student Guild and the University of Melbourne Student Union, were told by their universities that they would be given the report as soon as the institution received it.
However, the AHRC later recommended that universities not disclose the survey results with ‘third parties’ because they were under embargo. Jenkins told Honi, “we have asked vice chancellors to keep the national report and their institutional data confidential”.
In the wake of this, some universities that previously agreed to share their results with student representatives recanted their offer, and a number of briefings were subsequently cancelled.
After student requests, the AHRC organised a collective briefing to be held at the AHRC’s Pitt Street offices in Sydney. The one-hour briefing was scheduled for 6pm on 31 July — just 16 hours prior to the public release of the report.
Following student concerns that the 6pm briefing was out of work hours and would scarcely allow for adequate preparation, the AHRC rescheduled the briefing for 10am on 31 July, 24 hours before the report’s release.
The briefing did not cover any institution-specific data or results, but was an overview of what the report would include, its methodology, and its recommendations. There was no option to pose questions to Jenkins at the event; all questions were pre-submitted and their responses read from a script.
Moreover, only approximately 15 student representatives were present in the room with approximately 20 calling in. Considering five students were invited from the University of Sydney alone, and there are 39 partaking institutions, the turnout was marginal.
While the AHRC acknowledged that “some of you are preparing public communications material to be released on 1 August,” in an email to the representatives, their best offer of assistance was to say “the project team will send you a copy of the executive summary (that clearly highlights all major statistics) and a link to the full report once it is available online.”
While the university heavyweights have had one week to review the data and prepare their public relations messaging in advance of the public release, student representatives — who will be fielding both media requests for comment and an increase in sexual assault disclosures upon the release — will see the data for the first time when the rest of the public does.
At least you tried? USyd’s half-hearted “briefing”
Despite requesting that vice chancellor’s keep their copy of the report and its data confidential, Jenkins told Honi, “we have encouraged them to consult with student representatives regarding the support services required ahead of the report’s release and into the future.”
When asked about their decision to forgo a student briefing, despite calls from relevant student groups, a University spokesperson told Honi they had in fact organised a “high level briefing”.
The briefing they are referring to was a meeting of the Safer Communities Advisory Group, a body made up of roughly 30 staff and students nebulously tasked with making sure students are safe on campus.
On 26 July, the day following the release of results to universities, an “out of round” (a fancy way of saying a meeting held out of the usual meeting schedule) meeting was held, to which the usual members of the advisory group — which includes the International, Wom*n’s and Queer officers — were invited.
Honi understands the meeting did not differ from its usual format, and while there were opportunities to question Tyrone Carlin, the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Registrar), on the contents of the report, very little was revealed to the students in attendance, nor were they able to view the data.
Why this is fucked
According to Jenkins, “students have played a vital role in the project and many student representatives have taken a leadership role on these issues within their institutions.”
While true, this statement does not accurately reflect the extent of the work undertaken by student representatives who are on the frontline when it comes to responding to and supporting sexual assault survivors.
According to Imogen Grant, USyd Student Representative Council Co-Wom*n’s Officer, she receives at least one disclosure of sexual assault per week and expects this number to increase in the wake of the report.
By contrast, statistics obtained by Honi through a freedom of information request in 2016 showed that only 17 incidents of assault or indecency were reported to the University over a five year period, from May 2011 to May 2016.
Despite this overwhelming disparity, the AHRC has continually privileged the voices of Universities and vice chancellors over those of students throughout the survey process. This is not surprising, given the survey is primarily funded by Universities Australia, an organisation whose board is made up of nine vice chancellors.
“Many student representatives feel that they have been kept in the dark, and that the report process has been marred with a lack of transparency and student consultation,” Grant said.
“By providing universities a week to prepare, but only 24 hours for student representatives, it reinforces power dynamics that disadvantage survivors of sexual assault.”
While it is easy to see why the AHRC is concerned about leaks prior to the coordinated release, as one student told Honi, non-disclosure agreements are common practice in situations such as these to mitigate such risks.
Classifying Wom*n’s Officers as a “third-party” when they deal with sexual assault and harassment on campus daily in a paid position, undermines the crucial role they play in this space. Considering they will be on the frontline tomorrow and have not been thoroughly briefed, it is worth questioning why the far-removed vice chancellor of the University needs a week to prepare. Are the results that damning?
If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment and feel you would like to speak to someone for support or information, NSW Rape Crisis Centre (Phone: 1800 424 017) can provide counselling 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.
A new national University Support Line is available: 1800 572 224
The support line will be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It will operate until 30 November 2017.