The Commonwealth of Australia has been urged by advocacy organizations to immediately establish Australia’s first independent student watchdog in an effort to combat sexual abuse and address concerns regarding individuals’ safety on college campuses.
A working group that was formed this year in response to criticism regarding the reaction of the tertiary sector to sexual assault, sexual harassment, and gendered violence recommended for the establishment of a national ombudsman on Tuesday, during a special meeting with education ministers.
On the other hand, the ministers did not succeed in implementing the plan, which was made public on Wednesday. Instead, they announced that there will be a period of comment until the 31st of January.
Jason Clare, the minister of education for the federal government, stated that ministers would seek feedback from stakeholders and the wider community. He also stated that “all students and staff should feel and be safe on campus and in residential colleges.”
One of the leaders of the working group, Patty Kinnersly, who is also the chief executive officer of Our Watch, an organization that works to prevent violence against women and children, stated that she had hoped that ministers would endorse the proposal on Tuesday.
According to her, “consultation with specialists over the course of the past ten weeks has been an essential component of the process.” Many people’s opinions are reflected in the plan, which is a positive sign.
Those who had experienced sexual violence were not provided with sufficient help, according to the findings of an investigation conducted by the Senate.
During the most recent national student safety survey, which was conducted in 2021 and publicized during the Covid lockdowns, it was discovered that one in twenty students had experienced sexual assault since beginning their university careers, and one in six students had reported being subjected to sexual harassment. There were 84% of accused perpetrators who were male.
According to Kinnersly, “the experiences of students, the majority of whom are female, over an extended period of time are, to put it simply, shocking.”
“It is impossible not to feel inspired by the people who are going to university in order to study… setting up the rest of their life and that changing in an instant – to not feel that they are being appreciated or valued causes a lot of damage to how they are going to live their lives.
An independent watchdog that would have investigative powers was one of the seven important steps that were detailed in the plan. Another key action was an approach to preventing gender-based violence that would be implemented across the entire institution and would be upheld by a national higher education code.
It would be allowed to make recommendations that vice-chancellors or CEOs take “specific administrative steps” in order to resolve complaints.
Senator Mehreen Faruqi, who is the deputy leader of the Green Party and the party’s spokeswoman on education, stated that sexual abuse on campus is “widespread and systemic.”
According to her, “The ombudsman needs to have real teeth, be properly resourced, and have solid enforcement powers in order to prevent the failures of universities and [the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency] from occurring again.”
Additionally, Senator Sarah Henderson, who serves as the Coalition’s spokesman for education, expressed her support for the ombudsman idea.
On the other hand, Universities Australia, which is the most influential organization in the sector, voiced their concern that its powers would extend too far. “The remit of the proposed ombudsman appears to extend beyond the issue of student safety to include Hecs administration and course administration watchdog,” said Catriona Jackson, the chief executive officer of the University of Arizona. It would be appropriate to conduct a comprehensive investigation because this would constitute a significant reform.
“It would be inefficient to create duplication and overlap with existing regulations and regulatory watchdog bodies that deal with these issues,” the author writes. It is essential that we get this out of the way.
The idea has the support of student advocacy organizations watchdog such as Fair Agenda, the Stop Campaign, the National Union of Students, and End Rape on Campus.
If colleges were to take the matter seriously, as they have promised to do for the previous seven years, institutions would not have anything to worry about and would support the plan in its totality, according to Bailey Riley, the president of the National Union of Students (NUS).
“I am aware of the necessity of consultative procedures,” she stated. “After working on this issue for a decade, this is the first time I’ve really felt heard by decision makers. We would have liked it to happen a bit faster, but this is the first time I’ve felt heard by decision makers.”
It is imperative that no one undervalues the significance of this moment. Because it is something that students have been battling for for decades, and because it has the potential to alter everything, colleges simply need to get out of the way.