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On 23 February 2024, Education Ministers (state and federal) agreed to the Action Plan Addressing Gender-based Violence in Higher Education. The Action Plan recognises urgent action needs to take place to ensure the safety of higher education students and staff.

Later on the same day, the Federal Minister for Education, the Hon Jason Clare MP, would say:

“Universities aren’t just places where people work and study, they are also places where people live, and we need to ensure they are safe.

“Not enough has been done to tackle sexual violence in our universities and for too long students haven’t been heard. That now changes.”

“The Ombudsman will be completely independent and impartial and easily accessible to all higher education students,” said Minister Clare.

With the exception of several universities themselves, the sector broadly welcomed the announcement. It has a ‘ about bloody time ‘ vibes from student unions, advocates, victims, friends, and families.

So why am I suggesting there is a potential poison chalice here?

Well, allow me to explain. But first, a quick history lesson…


2015-2024: Gender-based Violence at Universities

Perhaps it was sometime in 2015-16 that the Australian Human Rights Commission conducted a national, independent survey of university students to understand the nature, prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities.

The product of this survey, the National university student survey on sexual assault and sexual harassment (the National Survey) and the findings were damning.

“Almost half (45%) of students who were sexually harassed in a university setting knew some or all of the perpetrators of the most recent incident.”

“Among those who had been sexually harassed in a university setting by someone they knew, more than two thirds (68%) said that the perpetrator(s) of the most recent incident was a student from their university.”

In response to these findings, Universities Australia launched a world-first, sector-wide program (RESPECT. NOW. ALWAYS.) aimed to prevent sexual violence in university communities.

In 2017, the Human Rights Commission issued the Change The Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities (2017) report, underlining the imperative for additional actions.

By 2022, the 2021 National Student Safety Survey results finally emerged, revealing evidence that while awareness had improved, the reporting and response mechanisms were failing victims.

In short, universities attempted to address the issues themselves but have categorically failed on several fronts.

With a new Labor Government in 2022, Jason Clare, the Education Minister, made addressing gender-based violence on campuses one of his primary focuses during the University Accords reform.

So now that is out of the way, allow me to explain the ‘now’ and this action plan.


TLDR summary of the Action plan

For transparency to our readers, I will disclose that I am one of the student voices who helped architect this action plan from its inception in September last year. So I have some ideas of its limitations as well.

Personally, I support the action plan, and I remain supportive of it, but I do acknowledge there are challenges afoot that will become problematic if student communities remain complacent.

Establishing a National Higher Education Code that sets clear duty of care expectations for universities to meet is a positive. Creating a National Student Ombudsman as a mechanism to escalate their complaints is also a positive.


A victory but tainted?

It’s pretty explicit that a student complaint can only escalate after it has been through the university’s complaints process. There will also be guidelines to minimize reliving trauma and prevent cases from going into limbo for months.

But here’s a thought. Universities could prevent complaints from making it to the ombudsman and headlines with a disingenuous complaints process.

It’s been already proven to work, and here’s how:

  • Have internal processes that discourage victims from pursuing or withdrawing from further action. Achievable by over-complicating the process and increasing the discomfort victims by having them relive their trauma during the reporting process.
  • Downplay the incidences and manipulating victims to believe the consequences were a ‘fair.’
  • Making no real effort to make students aware or even discouraging students from considering the ombudsman option.

The risks for universities have multiplied tenfold, and they will pursue new ways to mitigate them. Unfortunately this could come at the cost to students.

For example, universities like UQ are now probably more eager to manage clubs and societies from the UQ Union to apply their brand of risk management to gender-based violence.

The UQ clubs and societies are fortunate to have control of their bank accounts and act autonomously when running events. This is not the case on other campuses in Australia, where clubs all share a common bank account run by the university management and need to apply a fully detailed risk assessment to run a simple event in a tutorial room.

What better way to mitigate risk at club events by.. make running events the most impractical thing ever right?

So, to the point of the tainted cup. Yes, an action plan against gender-based violence is an absolute win, but at what cost? The pressure of additional regulations will be passed on pursuing additional control of your clubs, societies, events, student voice (including its media) & of course.. Our Union complex.

This is where student autonomy at UQ, something so many other campuses have lost, will slowly come under threat.

Is this automatically a tainted victory?

No. Not if we remain vigilant as a community to protect our voices and student autonomy.

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Author

  • Errol Phuah

    Errol studying a Masters of Educational Studies. He has a keen interesting in reporting on Higher Education news and is one of your Deputy Chief Editors of Semper Floreat in 2024.

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