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‘Breathtaking’: education ministers approve national ombudsman to tackle sexual assault at Australian universities

<span>A national ombudsman tasked with overseeing sexual assault complaints at universities was the key pillar of a plan commissioned by the federal government to address student safety concerns.</span><span>Photograph: Lucidio Studio, Inc./Flickr RF/Getty Images</span>
A national ombudsman tasked with overseeing sexual assault complaints at universities was the key pillar of a plan commissioned by the federal government to address student safety concerns.Photograph: Lucidio Studio, Inc./Flickr RF/Getty Images

Australia’s first independent watchdog to tackle gender-based violence on university campuses has been given the green light by education ministers – in a move hailed as “breathtaking” by student safety advocates.

The national ombudsman, tasked with overseeing sexual assault complaints at universities, was the key pillar of a plan commissioned by the federal government to address student safety concerns.

The Our Watch chief executive, Patty Kinnersly, put together the plan which was delivered to education ministers in November. It was approved on Friday.

Related: Universities criticised for failed response after report details extent of sexual violence on campuses

The plan recommended greater accountability of institutions, enhanced oversight of student accommodation providers and preventive mechanisms. It aims to avoid retraumatising victim-survivors by forcing them to tell their stories multiple times.

If the plan is implemented, students will be able to escalate complaints about sexual harassment, assault and violence. The ombudsman would determine whether action taken by providers was reasonable or whether additional steps were needed. It could share information with relevant regulators.

Addressing sexual assaults at universities was one of five priorities in the Australian Universities Accord interim report. The final report is due to be handed down on Sunday.

A separate report into consent laws released last year delivered a searing reproach to the tertiary sector for failing to provide adequate support services to those who had faced sexual violence.

The federal education minister, Jason Clare, said universities weren’t just for study and work – students often lived on campus too.

“Not enough has been done to tackle sexual violence in our universities and for too long students haven’t been heard,” he said on Friday. “That now changes.”

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The latest National Student Safety Survey, released in 2021, found one in 20 students had been sexually assaulted since starting university and one in six had reported being sexually harassed.

Universities Australia, the peak body for the sector, will hold another national survey in 2024 after backlash over its response to student safety.

Its chief executive, Luke Sheehy, said the body welcomed the education ministers’ decision adding universities were “committed to addressing this serious issue on campus”.

“We have not shied away from dealing with this major issue but we can do more – that’s what our students deserve,” he said.

The acting CEO of Our Watch, Cara Gleeson, said it was an “almost breathtaking” day. Victim-survivors would see an “immediate improvement in response and support”, she said.

“Change does take time, but we’re seeing such positive momentum. Universities have a duty to create that culture of safety.”

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Experiences aren’t isolated to students. A survey released by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) in 2023 found sexual harassment in higher education workplaces had jumped more than 50% since their last survey in 2018, with 29% of respondents reporting personal experiences of sexual harassment.

The NTEU national president, Dr Alison Barnes, said sexual harassment and violence had reached “crisis levels” as a result of university leaders playing down the problem.

“Universities must give this national plan their unqualified support if they are serious about ending sexual harassment and violence towards staff,” she said.

End Rape On Campus Australia and Fair Agenda, national advocates on sexual violence, have been campaigning for the recommendations in the action plan for years.

Sharna Bremner, the founder of End Rape on Campus, said the measures were “groundbreaking” and would transform the sector.

“Until now, the quality of responses and support victim-survivors have received from their university when they’ve reported their rape has been determined by which staff member they encounter,” she said. “This plan changes all that.”

Renee Carr, executive director of Fair Agenda, said universities and residencies had “failed their students” for years, with some neglecting to deliver quality prevention efforts and others causing additional harm with reporting processes.

Research released by the Australian Human Rights Institute this week found about half of students at Australia’s 39 universities knew nothing or very little about where to make a sexual harassment claim or seek assistance.

At the same time, a third of Australia’s universities didn’t have governance mechanisms in place to tackle ongoing sexual violence on campuses.

  • If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.