‘Unacceptable and devastating’: 1 in 6 report sexual harrassment in National Student Safety Survey

Five years on from the landmark 2016 AHRC Survey, the Social Research Centre’s report indicates that much remains to be done for victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Photography by Ishbel Dunsmore

CW: This article mentions sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) is separated into national and institutional components, with each of Australia’s 40 universities, including the University of Sydney, releasing their own report. Compiled by the Social Research Centre, a subsidiary of the Australian National University (ANU), it follows the first survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2016. 

At the national level, a staggering one in six students (16.1 per cent) report having experienced sexual harassment during their university years. Additionally, one in twenty (4.5 per cent) said that they endured a sexual assault incident.

The report highlighted persistent issues facing students attempting to seek support and report sexual violence. Only 5.6 per cent of students who were sexually assaulted and 3 per cent of students who were sexually harrassed made a formal complaint. Half of all respondents had little to no knowledge about how to report an incident. 

Although shocked by the scale of the report’s findings, students argue they were expected given universities’ inaction. This was the case for End Rape On Campus’ (EROC) Founder Sharna Bremner. 

“These findings, while unacceptable and devastating, aren’t surprising at all,” she said in a statement to Honi

“We know that universities have failed to invest in data-driven, expert-designed and led prevention initiatives, instead relying on one-off, check-box exercises like ‘Consent Matters’ modules that have no evidence base at all.” 

The report also notes the intersectional nature of sexual assault and harassment, with women, non-binary, and transgender students more likely to suffer from sexual crimes, along with disabled students. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual students also reported higher rates of sexual assault: two to three times higher than their straight counterparts.

It also affirms that cis men are the primary perpetrators of sexual assault, with over 85 per cent of students experiencing sexual assault reporting that a man was a perpetrator in their most impactful incident.

While sexual violence has occurred in many different contexts on campus, the key areas of concern included clubs, society events and their spaces, as well as residential colleges and student accommodation.

Read in the national context, USyd continues to perform worse in comparison to the national average across many areas. For instance, the proportion of USyd students reporting having experienced sexual harassment is higher at 18.5 per cent. The true scale of the crisis facing the University is difficult to estimate, however, due to the comparatively low response rate of USyd students. Having received only 876 responses, it is the lowest among Group of Eight (Go8) institutions. 

Similarly, when it comes to students’ willingness to file formal complaints, data suggests that USyd students almost always do not submit a formal complaint. Once again, Sydney performed worse than its Group of Eight competitors, even amid poor performance at rival institutions.  

One notable omission was a lack of any recommendation in the NSSS to improve the shocking slew of statistics it presented, aside from a number of generic suggestions compiled from the consensus of respondents and victim-survivors.

In other words, nothing much has changed. 

Five years on, did USyd fulfil its promises to students?

Figure 1. Proportion of students who report knowledge about support and formal complaint processes.

Reacting to the survey, USyd Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott apologised for the survey’s confronting results.

“To every person who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault, we are deeply sorry. Every student has the right to feel safe and supported and to be treated with respect and dignity, whether on campus, online or offshore.”

Although Scott states that the University has “taken strong action” – including implementing its compulsory Consent Matters online module in 2018 and a suite of consent workshops for SRC and USU student leaders – it is uncertain if these measures have secured positive outcomes. 

Indeed, this is the approach that the University of Sydney Union (USU) prefers. In a statement, the USU states that it recently implemented compulsory online sexual harassment and assault training for “select clubs”. These programs purport to “proactively equip and empower our club executives” to better respond to incidents. 

However, given one in four of students’ most severe experiences of sexual assault occurred at C&S events, steps which go beyond online modules are needed to address the crisis. 

“A consent module isn’t changing anything — as these statistics show,” SRC Women’s Officers Madeleine Clark and Monica McNaught-Lee said. 

“Most sexual assault perpetrators are men and this tells us [that] this is an issue of sexism.” 

End Rape On Campus (EROC) Founder Sharna Bremner agrees, arguing that “we know that these programs are largely ineffective and that universities rolled these out to give the appearance of action.”

“Many of the modules and workshops that universities have implemented are one-off exercises that research proves are more harmful than helpful, and many frame the issue of sexual assault as a problem that arises because of a misunderstanding or miscommunication,” Bremner said.

Barriers to seeking support and disclosure 

Considering past promises during former Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence’s term, USyd students’ strong reluctance to seek support and file formal complaints is a damning indictment of both Spence and Scott’s insistence that progressive change has occurred. 

Similar to half a decade ago, victims and survivors remain hindered by a familiar set of factors: fear of reprisals, emotional distress, and anxiety that their concerns would not be considered as “serious enough”. The NSSS found that less than half (46 per cent) knew where to seek support in an incident; meaning that many victims often go unsupported or seek support through informal networks such as friends. 

Meanwhile, a staggering 70 per cent of sexual assault survivors were dissatisfied with their institution’s formal complaint procedure. These difficulties are exacerbated by an ongoing lack of awareness, with one in two students “know[ing] nothing or very little” about formal reporting process for sexual harassment and assault. 

Bremner chalks this up to a failure on the part of universities: “It speaks volumes that so little effort has been put into ensuring that students know about reporting options and processes”

“But if you don’t actually want to address a problem, ensuring that it’s difficult to report to you in the first place is a great way to sweep it under the rug.”

The context and degree of familiarity with perpetrators also serves as a powerful deterrent against disclosure, with 50 percent of students reporting that they knew their perpetrator. Echoing 2018’s Red Zone Report by End Rape on Campus (EROC), the Centre highlighted that students often feared retributions if they “[spoke] out against their student accommodation or residence”.

The NSSS contains several testimonials from those who suffered from intimate partner violence, including from Sonya*, a queer woman who felt that reporting would not secure any outcome due to a lack of awareness about domestic violence in same-sex relationships. 

“I did not ever formally report my sexual assault to the University or name my perpetrator because I felt it would lead to nothing. Because my sexual assault occurred in the context of a same-sex relationship – for a long time I found it really difficult to process my assault,” she said. 

“While I understand the importance of viewing sexual assault in the framework of the patriarchy, I wish that education at university would incorporate queer relationships.”

The complexities involving familiarity and shared experiences that victims share with perpetrators are thus a significant deterrent for survivors in disclosing sexual harassment or assault.

According to Clark and McNaught-Lee, the barriers associated with submitting a formal complaint are high due to  an onerous reporting mechanism whose process is rife with uncertainty —  and often involves traumatic recollections. 

“The process of filing a formal complaint is very difficult for survivors. Sydney University services, like all sections of the university, have been defunded,” they said. 

“Survivors need to know that if they report their experience they will have an outcome, and at the moment that is not happening. More than that though, survivors need holistic support.” 

Echoing the Women’s Collective (WoCo) that the University has not enacted sufficient changes to address the current crisis, SRC President Lauren Lancaster and a number of Collectives are demanding that USyd release its full report, as the survey currently only provides a single page infographic on individual universities.

“We condemn the decision of Universities Australia to provide universities with campus-specific data comprising a mere one page infographic,” a joint statement from Lancaster, the WoCo, Welfare and Education Action Group said.

“We call for the full data pack on the University of Sydney to be released in the public domain.” 

Colleges and student accommodation

Figure 2. Context of incidents and proportion of students who knew perpetrators.

Residential Colleges and student accommodation are once again front-and-centre in this year’s report. Some 27 per cent said that they experienced sexual assault in a student residence setting. Although this number marks a fall from 2016’s 34 per cent, the report itself conceded that the past two years’ COVID-19 lockdowns have “reduced the opportunities” for incidents to take place at student accommodation. 

As such, these figures have to be viewed in the context of incidents occurring online instead of in-person, with one in ten (12.5 per cent) of incidents taking place in online university spaces. The NSSS noted that more than half of respondents were undertaking online-only classes particularly in New South Wales and Victoria. 

From a macro perspective, the report found that 25 per cent of incidents occurred at student residences and that half of victims knew their perpetrator. This is a strong reflection of the pivotal role that these institutions play in the social life and friendships between students. Whether it’s UniLodge, Scape or a residential college, these are the spaces where managerial deficiencies directly correspond with an erosion of residents’ welfare.  

Anonymous testimonies such as Yasmin’s* give but a small snapshot into the gravity and volume of submissions that the Centre received.  

“Her perpetrator was our RA [Residential Advisor]. She got into the middle of the queen-sized bed between him and another person who lived with us, after drinking. She verbally told him no, moved his arms away, kicked him off. When he still didn’t stop, she got out of the bed and moved to the other side of it, so he was in the middle. He then rolled over and did the same to the other girl in the bed. In the morning he said to my friend “I thought it was you the whole night.”

The original 2016 AHRC Survey and the Broderick Review, which began in 2017 and concluded in 2018 after a late submission from St Paul’s, have provided extensive documentation of systemic sexual violence. As such, it is likely that the stories and data in this report represent just the tip of the iceberg.    

Unsurprisingly, USyd’s six residential colleges — St Andrew’s, St John’s, St Paul’s, Sancta Sophia, Wesley and The Women’s College — have all responded to the survey’s result. Citing their own response to the 2018 Broderick Review (now almost five years old) the Colleges claimed that they have taken “significant steps” to increase the safety of College residents. 

Worryingly, the statement from the Colleges claims that one of the messages they have taken from the survey results is that “the overwhelming majority of students who lived in student accommodation or university residences across Australia felt safe and had a strong sense of belonging.” 

However, this stands in direct contrast with the report’s  findings that those living at student accommodation were 19 per cent more likely to experience sexual harassment and that 25 per cent of the most severe incidents occurred at these residences. The Colleges’ claim that these statistics represent sufficient progress poses serious questions about the threshold which these institutions consider success. 

This is despite extensive evidence that inappropriate hazing rituals, public defecation, systemic sexism and racism have been ongoing since Broderick. Over the past few years alone, St Paul’s Salisbury Bar was temporarily closed in 2019 after excessive drinking from an initiation event, lockdown parties thrived amidst isolation, and racist graffiti was repeatedly  found on St Andrew’s premises.      

Although St Paul’s recently attracted headlines for its decision to go co-ed, the decision was controversial among alumni and residents who voted overwhelmingly against the proposal. This is evidence of a student accommodation and college culture which is still highly resistant to change. 

“We need democratic, inexpensive and equitable housing for all [students] near campus, and that is not a lofty goal,” SRC President Lauren Lancaster said. “When that happens, we get closer to ending rape and sexual violence on campus”. 


In stark contrast to the 2016 AHRC-backed Survey, the 2021 NSSS did not put forward any formal recommendations, opting instead to outline general recommendations formed from the students’ consensus. 

This lack of formal recommendations may stem from the fact that unlike the last Survey, this year’s NSSS was compiled by the Social Research Centre,a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ANU, instead of a political organisation such as the Australian Human Rights Commission (ARHC). 

Unlike the AHRC, the Centre does not wield any statutory powers in holding public institutions to account under federal anti-discrimination legislation. This may explain the absence of formal recommendations from the Survey. In this context, Universities Australia’s 2021 NSSS appears to be an exercise in knowledge-gathering as opposed to enforcing formal changes. 

Following the AHRC’s recommendations, Sydney University’s residential colleges commissioned Elizabeth Broderick AO for their Broderick Review. The current NSSS itself is a result of the 2016 Survey’s mandate for a subsequent national survey, albeit after “every three years” instead of the five-year period that elapsed between the two reports.  

Suggestions given by students span across three areas: enhanced campus security, comprehensive education, and implementing tangible consequences for perpetrators. Many students further suggested that improved campus safety via “24-hour security” with “better lighting at night” around campus may assist with reducing fears of travelling alone. Heightened supervision at C&S events, parties and trips was also featured in students’ responses given the prevalence of sexual assault in on-campus events.

Education was also highlighted as a key area needing reforms. Increased educational initiatives targetting sexual harassment, assault, and fully informed consent were seen as crucial to improving students’ access to support services and complaint processes. Together with open discussion and advertising campaigns, awareness-based solutions were suggested by over 43 per cent of respondents.

Surveyed students resoundingly  called for accountability for perpetrators, with “decisive action and clear consequences” for all perpetrators, staff and students alike. This reform was suggested alongside other policy changes including “victim/survivor-centred approaches to reporting and dealing with sexual assault” and streamlined reporting processes.

A minority of responses (fewer than one in ten) suggested cultural change at universities as a solution. These responses included increasing the proportion of female and diverse staff members, improving staff behaviour and addressing misogynistic cultures.

* denotes a pseudonym used in the National Student Safety Survey to protect a student’s identity. 

Should you feel distressed after reading this article, please access the following resources:

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, https://www.1800respect.org.au/ 

NSW Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 424 017, https://fullstop.org.au/ Contact details for national referral services can be found at https://www.nsss.edu.au/