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Survey highlights frequency of sexual harassment and assault at Australian universities

A survey of 44,000 undergraduate students in Australia found that 1.1% of them had been sexually assaulted in the previous 12 months—and 5% had at some point during the course of their university studies. The vast majority, 95% of the victims, filed no formal complaint, usually because they were unfamiliar with their institution’s reporting channels.

The incidence of sexual harassment was even higher: one in six students reported having suffered harassment and half of the cases had occurred in the 12 months prior to the survey, carried out by Universities Australia (UA), an organization that represents 39 higher education institutions in the country.

Of the reported cases of sexual harassment, 43% occurred in areas on campus, 26% in places close to universities such as clubs and bars, and 25% in student accommodation. Female, transgender, and nonbinary students suffered more assaults and harassment than male students. Homosexual and bisexual students were also overrepresented among those assaulted. According to the results of the survey, more than 85% of aggressors were male and 5% were university employees.

The Australian National University (ANU), a public institution based in Canberra, was reflected particularly poorly in the survey, with 26.1% of its students reporting having suffered harassment and 12.3% experiencing sexual assault at some point during their studies—well above the national average. In a statement, ANU Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt said that despite the high number of students who had suffered harassment and abuse, the institution also had the highest percentage of students who knew how to file a complaint and seek support, which he attributes to the work done in recent years to combat the problem.

Since 2005, the university’s Rape Crisis Center has offered students living in university accommodation training on how to prevent sexual assault. According to Schmidt, all of the institution’s 20,900 students will be given mandatory training on the meaning of consent in a sexual relationship within the next two years. “The results are difficult for our community. And my thoughts are with victim-survivors, their loved ones, and the dedicated professionals and advocates who work so hard to support them,” the vice chancellor said, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

For John Dewar, president of UA, it is “harrowing and disappointing” that the results show little change since a similar survey carried out five years ago. “We have to continue working hard to prevent sexual harassment and assault and to eliminate the destructive attitudes that fuel these crimes within our universities,” he told Times Higher Education.