Universities Australia defends dropping $1.5m sexual consent campaign

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Australia’s peak body for universities has defended its decision to axe a $1.5 million communications campaign to prevent sexual violence among students, saying that broad national messaging would not have had enough cut-through to change young people’s behaviour.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said all 39 institutions would instead hold a sector-wide “Respect at Uni” week when students return to campuses at the beginning of next year, and develop a “good practice guide” for respectful relationships, with the agreement of the Department of Social Services.

Universities Australia chief Catriona Jackson says a homogenous messaging campaign for all university students in the country is unlikely to cut through.

Jackson faced a barrage of questions on Tuesday as part of a senate inquiry that is probing whether sexual consent laws and education can be improved.

The latest national survey of 43,000 university students found one in six had been sexually harassed and one in 20 had been assaulted since they began their studies – figures that advocates say are underestimates, given that the survey took place during the pandemic.

Labor senator Nita Green, who initiated the inquiry, said they were “obviously alarming statistics” as she pressed Jackson on why Universities Australia had not followed through on using the $1.5 million grant it received for a national communication campaign under the former Coalition government in 2021.

“In very broad terms, a number of members raised entirely valid concerns about how applicable one set of messages would be across 1.4 million students,” Jackson said, denying claims published in The Saturday Paper that the campaign was axed because some vice-chancellors objected to explicit content.

“A broad, homogenous campaign for the entire sector would unlikely have the cut through required to be effective in shifting behaviours and attitudes regarding consent and respectful relationships. This is very complex territory. We know that. There is no point doing work that won’t make a difference.”

But End Rape on Campus founder Sharna Bremner, who had been on the expert advisory committee guiding the campaign, told the inquiry: “That was not my understanding of what occurred.”

Bremner and National Union of Students president Bailey Riley also said the new resources were similar in tone and scope to others developed years earlier by Universities Australia and violence prevention group Our Watch. “The bulk of the material is nothing new,” Bremner said.

Greens senator Larissa Waters put to Jackson that students were looking for clear guidance and resources around sex and consent.

Jackson said it was a tough task. “The really hard end is where we are now, trying to change attitudes … Trying to influence people’s behaviours is a very, very complex task.

“Our universities have a strong understanding of their own unique demographics, their campuses and their students, which is why they are best placed to continue building on the extensive work undertaken to date,” she said.

However, the inquiry heard there was little across-the-board transparency in the university sector and each institution varied in their consent education and sexual assault reporting mechanisms.

“We don’t actually know what is happening across the sector as a whole,” Bremner said. She said retraumatisation in the reporting process was common, leading some victim-survivors of sexual violence to say: “My rape was bad, but the way my university handled it was worse.”

Bremner said challenges for students include unclear processes for reporting, being denied extensions for university assessments, and difficulties accessing campus counselling services, in the case of alleged sexual violence.

Privacy requirements may also mean a student can’t disclose their complaint, making it hard to get academic assistance, and in some cases, preventing them from learning the outcome of their case.

Advocate Nina Funnell said improving those processes in a trauma-informed way could have immense real-life outcomes for students by helping them stay engaged with their education.

“To me, it is astonishing we are still having this conversation in 2023 … Student activists have been campaigning on this issue since the ’70s,” she said.

Coalition senator Paul Scarr said he was “absolutely appalled” by the testimony in the inquiry. “And I think there needs to be fundamental change. I am deeply, deeply disturbed,” he said.

Nina Funnell told the inquiry “it is astonishing we are still having this conversation in 2023”. Credit: Domino Postiglione

The Group of Eight universities – representing the country’s top institutions – gave evidence saying they supported compulsory consent education models being undertaken by their students.

Professor Sharon Pickering from Monash University, representing the group, said they wanted to see nationally consistent sexual consent laws – another topic the inquiry has been investigating.

“The current inconsistencies in defining consent are challenging, particularly in the context of our role as universities supporting large communities of staff and students who come from varied and diverse states and countries,” she said.

“Harmonisation of consent laws, undertaken at the highest standard, would enable consent education to be clearly and consistently communicated.”

But asked by Waters why education modules had not been introduced by all the universities, despite them being advocated for years, Pickering said: “All members of the [Group of Eight] support introducing compulsory consent education modules. That reflects their intention. I cannot speak to why they haven’t done that to date.”

A landmark Australian Universities Accord report released by the government last week said universities needed to step up their work on student safety as a matter of urgency.

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