A quarter of all Australian universities willingly released to us all or some of their data relating to sexual misconduct through and outside the Freedom of Information Act. Some released the total number of allegations of sexual assault and harassment and some also released the number of disciplinary responses. The question that remains: why is it in the interests of the other three-quarters to follow suit?
Okay, let’s step back for a minute. Some might ask what purpose sharing this data serves beyond upholding the principle of freedom of information?
Transparency speaks to an institution’s willingness to be held accountable for their role in preventing and responding to sexual violence. It involves recognising the rights of current and prospective students to access information that relates directly to their safety on campus. In the United States, universities have been compelled to release their sexual assault data since 1990 under the Clery Act, which was introduced after a student, Jeanne Clery, was raped and murdered at Lehigh University. The Clery family argued that she would not have enrolled at the university had they published their high crime rates.
The data released by the ten universities who responded to our requests shows a significant disparity between the number of students who made allegations of sexual assault to their university and the number who anonymously reported being sexually assaulted as part of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2017 Change the Course survey.
The University of Melbourne, for example, received 16 allegations of sexual assault over a 2-year period (2016 and 2017), equivalent to 0.03% of students, whereas 1.6% of students anonymously reported being sexually assaulted at university in the AHRC’s report between 2015 and 16.
We cannot forget the other data set that is equally important: the disciplinary responses that occurred following these allegations.
Currently, students don’t have access to information that could enable them to predict how their university will respond if they disclose an experience of sexual misconduct. The process of making an allegation can be an incredibly difficult one. One which involves a victim-survivor reliving their trauma or reiterating their experience multiple times. It goes without saying, then, that victim-survivors need some level of assurance that enduring such a process will lead to a proper investigation. From here, one could argue that universities are in fact right to hide the number of students who are disciplined after being accused of sexual assault since the number is currently too low to give victim-survivors that assurance. Of the 16 students who made allegations of sexual assault to the University of Melbourne between September 2015 and September 2016, for instance, two were suspended, although one of those suspensions was overturned after the police dropped charges against the accused perpetrator.
In response to this implicit argument, we need to ask if keeping from public view data pertaining to the experiences of victim-survivors is any more likely to instil confidence. Transparency, honesty and the willingness to acknowledge what improvements need to be made are not novel concepts, but this approach might just go a long way in moving things forward from where they currently stand.
University students have a right to know the scale of sexual misconduct as an issue on their campus that pertains to their mental and physical wellbeing. Prospective students, as well as current ones, should be able to fully and easily inform themselves of the track record of the institutions where they will spend a significant portion of their time studying, and in some cases working or living.
We would hope that Vice-Chancellors and other senior university staff find this ethical case as compelling as we do. However, there is another argument that we would be foolish to ignore, and it’s a financial one.
We know that sexual misconduct is an issue that heavily affects international students. The AHRC Report found that one in 20 international students were sexually assaulted in 2015/16. These are the same international students that make up approximately one third of many top-ranked Australian universities’ total revenue, including RMIT (37%), Monash University (34%) and the University of Sydney (32%), and also make this industry Australia’s third highest export. If international students cannot remain confident in the ability of Australian universities to take their safety seriously, they will inevitably take their business elsewhere. This was made clear after a spate of violent attacks on Indian international students in 2009 and the stabbing murder of Nitin Garg resulted in education visas for Indian students declining from 34,200 in 2007-08 to 9750 in 2011-12.
Educational institutions have a responsibility to be accountable when it comes to providing their users with information regarding their safety. If we find that universities are unable to hold themselves accountable, then our governments must hold them accountable.
Even if universities had something to lose by protecting students’ wellbeing and their right to information, there would still be a clear case for compelling them to release their data pertaining to sexual misconduct allegations. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case. There is every reason to believe that greater transparency around their dealings with campus sexual violence would ultimately benefit our universities.
The visual map above was compiled from the data contained in this table, which also provides link to our correspondence with each university as part of the FOI process.
The embedded map can also be viewed on a separate page.
Image: 1st of August 2018 Student protestors outside Raymond Priestly building University of Melbourne during ‘Rally Against Sexual Violence’. Jeremy Nadel.