'As a grandmother, I am disgusted by universities' lack of care'

"Many, if not most, of our universities gave very little support to students and in some cases, staff, who were sexually assaulted or harassed."

As a parent, a grandmother and an aunt of past, present and future university students, I am extremely distressed at the level of sexual harassment and sexual assaults happening in our universities across Australia. I am even more distressed at the lack of action taken by our universities.

This week I was fortunate enough to talk with two young women, fighting tirelessly here in Tasmania to help victims. The Women’s Action President and a National Young Labor member disclosed to me statistics as well as proof of the lack of support at the University of Tasmania. I quickly learned that many, if not most, of our universities gave very little support to students and in some cases, staff, who were sexually assaulted or harassed.  

Earlier this year there was an inquiry conducted by the Sexual Discrimination Commission which supports the claims of these young women and made recommendations  to Australian Universities. As far as I can discover, nothing much has changed. Over thirty thousand students took part in this enquiry led by Kate Jenkins  from the Sexual Discrimination Commission and it was found that at least 51% of students were harassed and 26% of students suffered sexual assault. The majority of victims were women but men had a large number of harassment incidents with a smaller number of assaults. The majority of perpetrators are men around the thirty age bracket. The majority of victims are female aged between 18 and 24.

At the University of Tasmania in very recent times, 18 students had been expelled for plagiarism. However, thirty perpetrators of sexual misconduct had been given formal warnings, 25 hours community service, a fine and at the most, one had been given a one year suspension. None were expelled. Victims had been so traumatised that some ceased studying, changed degrees to remove themselves from attackers and in some cases, still ended up in classes with their attackers. Is copying someone’s work more serious than sexually abusing another person? I decided, under the Freedom of Information laws to call the university and ask some questions. I was put through to different departments and each answer was the same – they didn’t know who could help me. Eventually I received an email address of a department that “should be able to help”. So far they haven’t answered my email. There is no phone number for this department, surprise surprise!

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There are over one and a half million students attending universities across the country. The percentages of them and also staff that are being abused, when put into numbers is astronomical yearly and growing. The Hunting Ground Australia documentary was shown on ABC earlier this year and opened my eyes to the problem. Kate Jenkins acknowledged and thanked the work being done by the Australian Human Rights Commission, EROC Australia and the National Union of Students. She also acknowledged Hunting Ground.  

According to my sources, the University of Tasmania is only one of the many universities burying their heads in the sand.  Students who report these issues to police and/or universities are still fighting a losing battle and in particular the powers that be at Australian universities today do very little to assist or follow recommendations made by Kate Jenkins to aid in the safety of their students.  

Hats off the EROC for its unending efforts to bring this to the attention of the Australian people and to its assistance to a used students. Hats off to the the young women I spoke to for continuing to take Unis to task, although they are often berated and ostracised for their efforts. Mostly hats off to the young women and men who are brave enough to report these crimes. To those who are bullied or frightened into doing nothing, I am now with you to fight the fight to make it easier for you to come forward.

As an over sixty who cringes when I hear of these stories and hope against hope it never happens to my niece, to my grandchildren, I am asking what the government is doing. Commissioning investigations or studies does not fix the problem. In the words of an English teacher I know, “Act is a ‘doing’ word.” So, Mr Prime Minister, when is the government going to act?

How to you feel about the lack of action in this issue?