University students are experiencing "unacceptable" rate of sexual assault on campus, a survey of 31,000 Australian students has found, after students reported being assaulted on the way to university, inside residential colleges and by the staff supervising them.
The report, released by the Human Rights Commission on Tuesday, found 2100 students [6.9 per cent] were sexually assaulted during the past two years, while more than half of all university students were sexually harassed in 2016, with 21 per cent of those in a university setting.
"The unavoidable conclusion of the data we have gathered across all 39 Australian universities is that incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring at unacceptable rates at Australian universities," said Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
"To put this in context, in a lecture theatre containing 100 students, at least one, and possibly two, students have been sexually assaulted in the past two years," she said.
Ms Jenkins said the commission received the largest number of submissions in its history, with more than 1800 students detailing harrowing accounts of sexual assault and harassment.
"A woman told us she was raped by a senior student leader who was running an O-Week camp," said Ms Jenkins.
"She later heard that he had previously raped other female students at these camps and no action had been taken."
In another instance a woman went on a night out with friends from a college.
"A male friend bought her drinks all night and encouraged her to drink," she said.
"When she began to feel unwell, he offered to take her back to her college dorm room but instead he took her to his room, she woke up to find him sexually assaulting her."
Ms Jenkins said this was a story the Commission heard again and again and that reactions from university management had a devastating impact on victims.
One woman, who reported her sexual assault to her college, was asked about her drinking habits and what she would do in the future to make sure this didn't happen again.
Another woman who experienced ongoing sexual harassment by a fellow student reported the behaviour to her supervisor, who told her to take it as a compliment.
Investigation into residential colleges
The report found women were four times more likely to have been sexually assaulted than men in a university residence, while post-graduate students were more likely to have to been harassed or assaulted by a staff member.
Despite decades of reports of sexual assault on campus, many victims remain unaware of where to report their assault.
Only 6 per cent of students surveyed thought their university was doing enough to provide clear direction on sexual harassment procedures and support services.
Of students who were sexually assaulted in a university setting, 87 per cent did not make a formal report.
On Tuesday, Ms Jenkins released nine recommendations for reform, including establishing a sector-wide independent investigation into residential colleges.
"We found that college settings are a particular area of concern, particularly for women who were four times as likely as men to have been sexually assaulted in this setting," she said.
In February, universities were accused of "actively covering up sexual assaults" after it was revealed there had been just six expulsions in the past five years despite more than 500 official complaints, including college students referring to an oval as a "rape oval", calling cask wine "slut juice" and residential quarters "slut alley".
Universities Australia has also taken aim at colleges in its 10-point action plan, released on Tuesday, while developing new principles for postgraduate staff and student interaction in response to the new figures.
Chief executive Belinda Robinson said the peak body would also be extending first responder training to frontline university staff.
"We know that the way a disclosure of sexual assault is handled in the very first instance can make all the difference to the recovery of the victim or survivor," she said.
"This work will help ensure that all students will receive a compassionate and supportive response if they choose to disclose their experience to a university staff member."
What about the offenders?
But sexual assault advocates have condemned the peak body for failing to mention either perpetrators or disciplinary measures in its response.
"Universities Australia's complete silence on offenders and disciplinary reform makes victim-survivors question just how committed they really are to taking firmer steps towards making campuses safe for students," said End Rape on Campus ambassador Nina Funnell.
"Implementing trauma-informed reporting channels is all well and good but if universities have no intention of ever disciplining offenders there is little incentive to report."
University administrators have been awaiting the survey's findings since the survey was launched in November. All 39 institutions are set to release their individual results on Tuesday morning following reports from Fairfax Media.
Universities Australia and the Human Rights Commission had previously been accused of "unconscionable research" and "betraying" the students who participated in the survey because they would not release data on individual universities.
The figures are set to have an impact on Australia's third largest export, the $20 billon international student market.
Donaldson Law director Adair Donaldson said unless universities fundamentally changed their culture of dealing with sexual assault, a wave of victims could come forward seeking damages due to breaches of duty of care.
"Universities must be prepared to acknowledge and support survivors of sexual assault and abuse, or the result to these academic institutions could be serious financial distress due to legal claims," Mr Donaldson said.
"My experience working with survivors of institutional abuse is that nobody wants to embark on aggressive and protracted legal action, there is an opportunity for the universities to work together with survivors, rather than against them."
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. In an emergency contact 000.
Universities Australia has also established a new university dedicated counselling hotline on 1800 572 224.
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