One in five Curtin students experience sexual harassment and many do not know where to get help, according to the Human Rights Commission report into sexual assault and harassment in Australian universities.
The report is based on a survey of about 31,000 students across Australia’s 39 universities, with Curtin accounting for 1,100 responses.
As a part of this week’s Student Guild event, Rad Sex & Consent Week, Curtin Vice Chancellor Deborah Terry met with students to discuss the results specific to Curtin and the university’s response.
“The survey focused on two issues: sexual harassment and abuse. From Curtin’s perspective there is zero tolerance for these issues,” she said.
Terry said she wanted to focus on the situation at Curtin, using the national average as a benchmark.
Curtin was lower than the national average in sexual harassment (21 percent – 26 percent) and well below the national figures for sexual assault (0.3 percent – 3 percent).
“The nature of the harassment reported at the university ranges from inappropriate staring, sexually suggestive comments and jokes, through to unwelcome physical contact,” Terry said.
“By far the most common reports by Curtin students were staring, commenting, and intrusive questions. About 74 percent of reported incidents were of that nature.”
According to the survey, 64 percent of harassment at Curtin is perpetrated by a fellow student and 24 percent by a close friend or acquaintance – a striking difference to the national average of 8 percent for the latter.
“I am not quite sure what we would read into that. It might be perhaps because Perth is a fairly small city and there is more engagement and contact across universities, but I am not sure,” Terry said.
But Terry said she was more concerned that one in four (74 percent) of students did not think it was serious enough to seek assistance from Curtin. In fact only 5 percent sought help.
“Seventeen percent of students did not know who could provide them with support or assistance, and we are concerned about that,” she said.
The result was similar for sexual assault, with 23 percent of students not knowing where to get help.
“Knowledge of university support and where to make a complaint about sexual harassment are areas we are most focused on. This is something we can have an impact,” Terry said.
“You can see that by and large our student population doesn’t feel they have got a lot of information about where to make a complaint, where to seek support and knowledge about services.”
Student Guild Education Vice President Jordan Piggott is a member of a committee considering amendments to Curtin’s existing policies around this issue.
“Where the university has failed students is partly to do with policy, but it’s more so about communication and students knowing where they can access these services and academics knowing where to direct students,” he said.
“The Curtin specific data shows that the bulk of students don’t know where to find the information at Curtin and what happens to the information once they make a report. The clearest deficiency is in the communication from the university to the students.”
Piggott said there needed to be more transparency around the processes of Curtin’s security and Student Discipline.
“I personally know that the Safer Community team have very good practices of dealing with reports and disclosures of anything that happens on campus. The problem is that I know this and nobody else does.”
Sexual assault and harassment can occur off campus, away from staff, services and support. Results from the survey showed only 21 percent of students were harassed on campus – compared to 26 percent nationally.
“Public transport to and from the university tops the list,” Terry said.
“Twenty-nine percent of our incidents were actually on public transport. That is a high amount. It was more than the national average but less than universities in cities like Sydney and Melbourne.”
What is Curtin going to do about it?
Terry said the university was reviewing guidelines, policies, frameworks, a communication strategy, implementing more training for staff, and developing a university-wide approach to incident reports.
“We need to work with our staff so that they are clear that even if it happens on public transport, they can report that.
Student Guild President Liam O’Neill said the student body had been working closely with the university prior to and after the release of the findings.
“Within the university we are involved in three different groups,” he said.
“The Operational Group before the survey was focused on the immediate action Curtin took to respond, such as spreading awareness.
“The reference group was focused around the wider issue and how the university should act on that issue.
“Now the survey has been released, I am a part of the Steering Group, which is taking responsibility for this issue and making recommendations to the Vice Chancellor.”
The Guild issued eight recommendations to the university, which includes giving the Integrity and Standards Unit and Student Discipline more resources and authority to scrutinise sexual assault and harassment investigations.
It also wants to introduce an online training module about consent and appropriate behaviour for all students and staff, and more trauma-related training for staff members dealing directly with students.