University students speak out on sexual violence and a lack of safety on campuses

The latest National Student Safety Survey has highlighted a lack of support for victims of sexual assault and harassment on Australian university campuses. Photo: University of Sydney/Facebook.


University students already have a lot on their plates, from student fees and assignments, to social expectations and student life. The expectation that you should be safe on campus is a given.

While universities were quick to protect their students and staff from Covid-19 by switching to online, they’ve been slow to respond to sexual assault and harassment reports, according to the latest National Student Safety Survey (NSSS).

Universities Australia surveyed more than 43,000 students across multiple universities and found:

  • One in six students have experienced sexual harassment since starting university and one in 12 in the past 12 months.
  • One in 20 students have been sexually assaulted since starting university. 
  • Only one in 30 students who were sexually harassed made a formal complaint.
  • Only one in 20 students who were sexually assaulted made a formal complaint. 
  • Half the students surveyed knew nothing or very little about the formal reporting process for harassment or assault.

These sobering statistics have prompted the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) to call on the Morrison Government to make the prevention of sexual violence on university campuses a priority.

NTEU National President Dr Alison Barnes is shocked by the results of the survey, saying it shows just how abandoned students are by the government.

“I feel heartbroken for the students who have been failed by universities and our federal government,” Dr Barnes said.

Dr Alison Barnes has placed the blame for the shocking statistics on the Morrison Government. Photo: Dr Alison Barnes/Facebook.

“It is sadly unsurprising that student safety and knowledge of formal complaint processes has become collateral damage in the war the federal government has waged against universities.”

The National Union of Students (NUS) say they aren’t surprised by the disturbing findings.

In a press release, the NUS placed the blame for the worrying situation on the universities themselves.

NUS president Georgie Beatty said universities’ lack of response to sexual violence was placing lives in danger.

“We know that the universities can respond with urgency when lives are at risk – we have seen that response to Covid. Yet their inaction regarding [sexual assault and sexual harassment] has allowed the problem to persist and resulted in tragedy and even fatalities,” Beatty said.

NUS women’s officer Jacqueline Price expressed similar sentiments.

“This report has shown what an utter failure our support services and reporting systems are for students, when one in two students who have been assaulted or harassed knew nothing about formal reporting processes and almost three-quarters of people who went through the service said it was not good enough,” Price said.

Upcoming Western Sydney University graduate Sarah Cupitt told The Sentinel she wasn’t surprised by the statistics, knowing fellow students have avoided reporting such incidents due to the university’s inaction and the negative effects of not being believed.

Western Sydney University student, Sarah Cupitt at her university’s Welcome Week 2022 program. Photo: supplied.

“In my case and many others, [complaints are] dismissed by the system entirely. I’m yet to hear back about an incident from 2019, and I’m graduating next month, aware that my case was read over and ignored,” Cupitt said.

“The failure to effectively respond to sexual harassment is an ongoing systematic problem in Australian universities. A lack of trust in these institutions is an understatement. Student survivors are all too frequently the ones who have to deal with sexual abuse and harassment on campus and advocate on behalf of future students,” she said.

“In my experience as a student both heavily involved in student politics and student media for the past three years, I’ve spoken to countless female and male students who struggle with this issue. Problems range from confusing reporting protocols, a lack of knowledge about where to go and poor responses from existing services.”

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Tileah Dobson is the news editor and sub-editor of the Sydney Sentinel.

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