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Organisers hope National Student Safety Survey brings needed changes

A report of the survey’s results will be released in March 2022.

From 6 September, 10,000 students from each of 39 universities will be selected to participate in the National Student Safety Survey (NSSS), led by Dr Anastasia Powell and the Social Research Centre. The survey is funded by Universities Australia under their ‘Respect. Now. Always.’ initiative.

A report of the survey’s results will be released in March 2022, detailing the scale and nature of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses. 

The report is the latest in a line of reports into sexual violence on campuses, including the 2016 ‘Change the Course’ Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) survey, the 2017 Broderick Reports, and the 2018 Red Zone report. The NSSS will collect both quantitative and qualitative data and survey whole university communities. This is in contrast with the Red Zone Report which only included qualitative research and focused solely on residential colleges, along with the two Broderick Reports which focused on James Cook University and USyd’s Residential Colleges.

2021 USyd Women’s Officers Amelia Mertha and Kimmy Dibben spoke to the changes they have seen since the AHRC survey: “USyd implemented an excellent team of Student Liaison Officers, the Consent Matters module, and the Safer Communities meetings between student representatives and staff. These are no small feats. The SLOs in particular do incredible work to support students on campus. However, this team is vastly under-resourced and understaffed, and the other initiatives listed operate entirely separate to student feminist activists who have valuable knowledge and experience.”

Feminist organisers have expressed a jaded view of the anticipated managerial response to the survey. Founder and director of End Rape on Campus Australia Sharna Bremner notes “We don’t think we’ll see … any accountability for universities who fail to address sexual violence in their communities. We know that there will be some universities who just won’t do the right thing without being made to.“ The survey’s methodology has not gone without critique, with Bremner noting the impact that COVID-19 will have on the results, with fewer students on campus.

“The information that will come out of this research will not bring about any new revelations. It will show us what we, the survivors and student activists, have been shouting in the streets for years …  The Women’s Collective spends all year every year fighting against sexual violence on campus, however management refuses to prioritise survivors over its own reputation. Universities cannot drag their feet to only do the bare minimum every five years,” Mertha and Dibben said. 

A notable improvement in the NSSS by comparison to the 2016 AHRC survey was the incorporation of behavioural questions, the omission of which “miscategorised incidents that would legally be considered as sexual or indecent assault as sexual harassment. As a result, the reported rates of sexual assault were far lower than they should have been”, Bremner said.

Bremner expresses hope that the NSSS will precipitate positive change where the Red Zone and Broderick Reports failed to do so. “There’s been a noticeable shift in attitudes and expectations in recent years, and we’d expect to see that reflected in how universities respond to the survey. Of course there are always some Vice-Chancellors that hold archaic views and who we know will do the bare minimum required of them, but those VCs can expect that we will continue to fight for the rights of students.”

“The data collated in this report will be important to concretely understand the epidemic of sexual violence on university campuses in statistical terms,” Mertha and Dibben noted, describing the survey as an important activist tool in holding management to account and securing fast and significant changes on campus.

Submissions to the National Student Safety Survey close on the 3rd of October. Anyone who has been enrolled at an Australian university in the past five years, including current students who did not receive the survey email, can also share their story on the NSSS website. All responses and submissions will be made anonymously.

If you have become distressed upon reading this article, please consult the following:

Safer Communities Office: 8627 6808 (8:30am – 5:30pm Mon-Fri), safer-communities.officer@sydney.edu.au

Royal Prince Alfred Sexual Assault counselling outreach clinic: Available via the Safer Communities Office, provides free counselling for students who have experienced sexual assault

1800 Respect – National sexual assault, domestic family violence hotline: 1800 737 732, www.1800respect.org.au

NSW Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 424 017, www.rape-dvservices.org.au