AHRC university sexual harassment survey downplays staff misconduct

Staff to student sexual harassment is not a topic that universities have historically been keen to broadcast, presumably for reasons relating to risk, reputation and responsibility. As such, it becomes the domain of impartial, third party organisations to investigate and report on this issue

This is why the Australian Human Rights Commission’s survey of sexual harassment at Australian Universities was such a promising opportunity to provide important data on staff sexual misconduct. The survey canvassed over 30,000 students across 39 universities and included 1849 qualitative individual submissions. With this scope, the study could have mined data to provide depth of analysis comparable to the Association of American Universities (AAU) study of sexual harassment published in 2015.

The AHRC report delivers on the prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian universities, noting that 51% of students experienced sexual harassment in 2016, and 6.9% of students experienced sexual assault at least once in 2015-16. It includes analysis on experiences of different groups within the university population such as international students, and LGBTQ, trans and non-binary students.

But when it comes to reporting on the role of university staff as perpetrators of sexual misconduct, the report is light on detail. In its 264 pages, no mention is made of the overall prevalence of staff sexual misconduct, nor are there any recommendations relating to it. This is despite the AHRC gathering details from individual universities on staff to student harassment, and requiring universities to release this data on the same day as the report. Whether this level of detail has been overlooked by omission or by design is beyond the scope of this blog post, but the overall sense is that AHRC does not want to expose the sector.

The AHRC’s omissions in reporting leaves it up to the (motivated) reader to glean information on staff to student harassment rates by perusing individual university data. The Sydney Morning Herald has examined this institution-level data, reporting that staff misconduct comprised 20% of reported sexual harassment cases at some universities. Further data collected but only briefly mentioned in the final report includes the sexual harassment from non-academic staff, which comprised 3% of all reports from 2016.

Putting aside these omissions, what can we glean from the report about staff sexual misconduct in Australian universities? The report tells us that 7% of students who reported experiencing sexual harassment named the perpetrator as ‘a tutor or lecturer from your university’. The report also reveals that 10% of postgraduate students reported sexual harassment where a tutor or lecturer was perpetrator, compared to 6% of undergraduate students.

The survey’s written submissions give a little more insight into staff sexual misconduct as well as sexual harassment occurring on student placements. Commenting on this data, the report notes that ‘a theme that emerged from these submissions was the power disparity between students and teaching staff, which made students vulnerable to sexual harassment’. There is also a brief mention of postgraduate students’ experiences of ‘unwanted sexual advances’ at conferences, with the report noting that ‘some submissions indicated that this type of behaviour was common at conferences’. Finally, the ‘negative ramifications’ of reporting is mentioned, including one account of a student who was forced to attend (failed) mediation with the perpetrator, a senior academic, and another account involving university staff protecting each other when a student reported sexual harassment.

Taking a step back from the detail of the report, it is important to recognise that the reported data could well be an underestimate. Students were obliged to name their university and their discipline in the survey, which may have put them off disclosure for fear of anonymity being compromised. But more importantly, the survey questions about sexual harassment are too general to capture many of the abuses of power that staff can perpetrate on students in a university setting. This could be the lecturer who has a consensual relationship with a student and when they break up, the student is punished through lack of access to academic support or references. It might include the many ways in which university staff can promise rewards or threaten retaliation if they do not receive sexual favours. Or it might be the subtle forms of grooming that can break down the already blurry professional boundaries between staff and students.

So what is being done to address staff to student misconduct? Universities Australia has published a ten point Action Plan to prevent and address sexual assault and sexual harassment, which includes an action point to develop ‘new principles to guide interaction between supervisors and postgraduate students’. We welcome this clarification of professional boundaries between academic staff and students, and an enforceable code of conduct is one of our strategic priorities for the sector. However, describing this relationship of unbalanced power as an ‘interaction’ appears to put responsibility equally on the student and the staff member for upholding these professional boundaries. We hope that the guidelines will recognise the many and varied ways in which academic staff can exploit their power over not only their postgraduate but also their undergraduate students, and will include sanctions for staff who violate them, as is normal for the violation of professional boundaries in health and therapeutic settings.

Importantly and fundamentally, nowhere in Universities Australia’s ten point plan, nor in the AHRC report’s recommendations, are there any other measures that will address staff sexual misconduct directly. Specific recommendations are needed in relation to staff-student sexual relationships, and the effect on students’ studies when staff abuse their position of power. We hope that, despite the shortcomings of this report, Universities Australia will recognise that they have the opportunity to do world-leading work in this area if they take staff sexual misconduct seriously.

This blog post is written by Dr Anna Bull who is a co-founder of The 1752 Group and lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth.


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