2020 national survey on student sexual assault and harassment confirmed

The Social Research Centre and Dr Anastasia Powell will conduct the survey, with indications that there will be methodological improvements from the first survey in 2016

Graphic with yellow background, and the logos for Universities Australia and the Social Research Centre

Universities Australia (UA) announced this morning that a second national survey on university sexual assault and harassment has been funded for 2020, and is to be conducted by the Social Research Centre (SRC), in partnership with RMIT violence prevention expert Dr Anastasia Powell. 

A UA press release indicates that efforts have been made to ensure the second survey is carried out using ethics-approved methodology, will involve “strong student and survivor engagement in the process,” and will give more attention given to how the report’s release will impact the community.

This comes as a positive development following a period of significant uncertainty surrounding who would conduct the survey and whether the methodological errors of the 2016 national survey, conducted by the Australian Human Rights Council (AHRC), would be repeated. As of June 2019, UA was conducting a private tender process to decide who would carry out the 2020 survey, meaning that students were not able to provide feedback as to who was best placed to carry out the survey.

In June, End Rape On Campus (EROC) summated criticisms of the 2016 survey and resulting 2017 Change the Course report, in their own inaugural newsletter, Blaze. Criticisms included the survey not following best practice by not using behavior-based questions, not having its submission questionnaire passed through ethics-approval, and only making questions available in English. 

Moreover, the 2017 Report was published without an impact plan in order to assist Wom*n’s and Queer officers — who are inevitably inundated with disclosures following the release of such a report — or ensure there was sufficient sexual assault reporting infrastructure prepared.

The UA press release indicates that attempts are being made to rectify several of these issues. 

UA promised that the 2020 survey will first be piloted at the Australian National University and Charles Sturt University, before being released to universities nationwide. Universities Australia Chair Professor Deborah Terry said that “said the combined expertise of the SRC and Dr Powell, with strong student and survivor engagement in the process, would develop high-quality research with student wellbeing at the center.”

In addition, the UA website says that Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia were funded to provide first responder training to student wom*n’s officers in July 2019, and will do so again for them in 2020.

EROC Australia “welcome[d]” the announcement, saying that they were “look[ing] forward to working with UA and other stakeholders to ensure that this survey follows best practice, is trauma-informed, and captures the experiences of student survivors across the country.” 

USyd Wom*n’s Collective convenors Layla Mkh and Jazzyln Breen said that they “hope that the SRC takes into account the critiques of the last survey provided by EROC and Women’s Collectives around Australia. Based on this year’s reports of hazing at different USyd colleges, we don’t necessarily think the results of a new survey will be better regardless of the actions USyd has taken.”

According to the UA press release, the SRC has previously conducted other large-scale surveys including, “the National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women Survey with Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) and the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching student surveys for the Australian Government.”

The 2017 AHRC report, the Change The Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities recommended that the national survey be repeated every three years. 

Mkh and Breen added that “while it is reassuring that the survey will be run by qualified professionals, it is disappointing to see a continued focus on surveying for statistics. We already know that there is a huge sexual violence crisis on campuses and that not enough has been done yet to stop it. We need more genuine action from universities and less administrative paperwork that makes them look like action is being taken.”

If you have experienced or are at risk of sexual assault, 1800 424 017 is the 24/7 telephone crisis counseling service from the NSW Rape Crisis Centre for anyone in NSW and their non-offending supporters.