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First comprehensive national survey into campus sexual assault launches in Sydney

Justine Landis-Hanley reports on a new national survey into campus sexual assault and harassment.

The nation’s first comprehensive survey into sexual harassment and assault on university campuses, launched today in Sydney, will aim to gather vital data on the issue where previous surveys have fallen short.

The joint project of the Australian Human Rights Commission and Universities Australia will survey a representative sample of students across all 39 universities on their experiences of harassment and assault, as well as institutional responses to it.

Yesterday, 12 Sydney University women’s officers from the last decade penned an open letter to Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence accusing the University of “deliberately [stalling] action on sexual assault” and prioritising its reputation over student safety.

Speaking at today’s launch, Shadow Minister for Education and Women, Tanya Plibersek, told audiences not a lot had changed for students since she was UTS women’s officer as a student.

“I was stalked at university. When [the UTS Women’s Collective] had our sexual harassment campaign, I got a phone call in the middle of the night threatening rape,” she told the launch.

Human Rights Commission president and former Sydney Law School dean Gillian Triggs said it was time to take seriously ongoing accounts of campus assault.

“We have been hearing stories for a long time now about incidences of sexual assault and violence on campus,” she said. “They are extremely distressing not just campus pranks.

“We know that the culture of sexual discrimination goes hand in hand with a culture of violence against women.”

Students across the country will be invited to participate in the survey via email over the next few months.

The survey’s aim is to provide the Commission with data on the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, and students’ experiences with their university’s processes and responses for handling such cases.

But according to Sydney University Women’s Officer Anna Hush, the University administration’s past inaction leaves little hope.

“Although research is important to gauge the full extent of this issue, it needs to be followed up by concrete, well-informed action,” Hush wrote in a Guardian op-ed on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, this was not the case with the [The University of Sydney’s] own ‘Safer Communities’ survey last year, which made five vague recommendations that have not yet led to any tangible benefits for student.

National Union of Students Women’s Officer Heidi La Paglia told gathered vice-chancellors, student representatives, and other guests at today’s launch that it was nonetheless a feat to see a collaborative project between national organisations promising to address high rates of campus sexual assault.

“There are still huge amounts of work to do from here,” she said. “But the fact we are all here today is a milestone and something we should be proud of.

Disclaimer: Justine Landis-Hanley is currently working at the Australian Human Rights Commission as an intern on the Respect.Now.Always.National University Student Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment.