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Human Rights Commission accused of ‘betraying’ students who participated in sexual assult survey

April 5, 2017 ·  By Eryk Bagshaw for www.smh.com.au

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A survey of thousands is set to unveil widespread instances of sexual harassment on campuses but students will not find out how bad the problem is on their campus after the Australian Human Rights Commission said it would not publicly release data on individual universities.

The Commission has also been been accused of “unconscionable research” and “betraying” the 39,000 students who participated in the survey for not seeking full ethics approval and failing to make any enforceable recommendations on the findings.

Nina Funnell claims the research is "grossly unethical". Photo: Supplied

Nina Funnell claims the research is “grossly unethical”. Photo: Supplied

The decision to not publicly release each university’s incident figures comes despite many university leaders acknowledging privately that releasing such data would be the most effective catalyst for change.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said she would “encourage universities to release their own figures”.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Nina Funnell, a former winner of the Human Rights Commission’s community award and a former member of the NSW Premier’s Council to Prevent Violence Against Women lashed out at the “unconscionable” and “grossly unethical research” undertaken by the Commission and sponsored by the nation’s peak university body, Universities Australia.

In a letter to the nation’s student leaders to be released on Tuesday, Ms Funnell will accuse the Commission of “exploiting rape and sexual assault survivors, by mining them for their stories, and luring them into participation under false pretences”.

“I am one of over 1000 individuals who spent a considerable amount of time detailing violent, horrific experiences, in the belief that it would contribute to meaningful change,” she said.

“It has now been revealed the submission instrument never gained ethics approval and worse, victims and students who participated on the basis that they were told that recommendations would be made, are now devastated to learn that no recommendations will be made from this study.”

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson. Photo: Daniel Munoz

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson. Photo: Daniel Munoz

There were 14 recommendations made by the last Human Rights Commission report into sexual assault, which was led by Elizabeth Broderick and credited with reforming the Australian Defence Force.

The Commission’s special advisor Matt Hall confirmed in March the survey would “identify areas for action and reform rather than making recommendations”.

Labor MP Jo Haylen. Photo: James Brickwood

Labor MP Jo Haylen. Photo: James Brickwood

NSW Labor women’s advocate and member for Summer Hill, Jo Haylen, said recommendations provided important leverage for government that can tie university funding to compliance.

“Recommendations empower governments, advocates and students to hold universities to account” she said.

RMIT justice and legal studies lecturer Anastasia Powell said survivors would be devastated to discover the lack of enforceable outcomes from the survey.

“This research process is asking them to relive trauma, to delve into their experiences,” said Dr Powell.

“We know that sexual assault survivors participate in this kind of research precisely because they want to see change, so when they have been encouraged to participate with the motivation that there will be some kind of recommendations, it undermines both the research process and is a real disrespect to survivors, who have gone through the painful process.”

Ms Jenkins said any survivors who were distressed by the survey should contact the Commission.

“We would like to reassure all those who completed the survey or made a submission that the information they have provided will be vital to our report, particularly when it comes to identifying the areas where universities need to take action,” she said.

But the National Union of Students said it was “outraged” to hear the million-dollar survey will not produce recommendations and vowed to push for greater reforms.


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The 575 reports resulted in 6 expulsions

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said the survey was conducted because university leaders want robust evidence on the nature and scale of sexual assault and harassment in their communities.

“Asking the Commission to conduct this work is a clear demonstration that across the sector, universities want to build on and improve their policies, programs and safety initiatives,” she said.

In February, Fairfax Media reported universities had been accused of “actively covering up sexual assaults” after a submission to the Commission alleged there had been just six expulsions in the past five years despite more than 500 official complaints. Examples included students referring to an oval as a “rape oval”, calling cask wine “slut juice” and residential quarters “slut alley”.


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The Commission also confirmed the submission component of the survey – which included more than 1800 students’ harrowing personal accounts of a sexual assault – never gained ethics approval, which is otherwise a basic requirement of academic research at every one of Universities Australia’s members.

The Commission said as it was conducting the submissions process, not Universities Australia, ethics approval was not required.

The prevalence survey component of the research received ethics approval from UNSW in August.

Ms Jenkins said the Commission closely consulted 1800RESPECT and Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia about the process.

Academics have also slammed the make-up of the survey, warning it is likely to produce poor results because of its flawed methodology.

Dr Powell said the survey’s broad nature, which avoided asking specific graphic questions such as “has anyone ever had sex with you when you were unconscious or asleep?” was likely to produce under-reporting and ignored the best practice approach advocated by a landmark US White House paper on sexual assaults on university campuses.

Ms Jenkins said the survey would “provide a strong basis for action by universities to address the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment at university.”

“We will release a report on our findings by mid-year,” she said.

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