(Bracketed)

By Emma Hartley
Black and cream building with grey bricks and a pink banner in the centre that reads "Charging more caring less"

Removing the brackets around sexual violence at Australian universities

 

I find it interesting the way in which brackets are (like a whisper in a sentence) 

used to isolate (their contents) 

the issue of sexual violence at Australian universities (you don’t need to read this).

 

There is a democratic deficit in Australian universities. Whether it be fossil fuel divestment, lower accommodation costs or eradicating sexual violence, student activists consistently find the lack of transparency and initiative by the university leadership as a barrier to positive change. College culture and facilitation of incident reporting are both in the power of the university to change for the better.

For decades, universities have been well-known sites for sexual violence, yet only in recent years has meaningful change begun to take place. In the foreword of The Red Zone Report for End Rape On Campus, Professor Catharine Lumby notes how little has changed since she was at the university in the 1980s. The ball is now rolling, but an institutional democratic deficit rather suggests a laggard approach, ensuring slowed momentum.

This near-inertia stems from seeming unwillingness of the universities to take an initiative. Despite the global school strikes for climate, these universities are happy to provide Australia with climate scientists, but not do anything to divest from fossil fuels. Despite the naming and shaming of universities in the Australian Human Rights Commission ‘Change The Course’ report, the leadership has launched new reports and surveys but institutional changes have barely been implemented since the release of the report in August 2017. Instead, the burden has fallen on the students to act. There have been years of strikes and protests. They are a mammoth effort to organise. Needless to say, they are physically, mentally, and emotionally draining with the constant turnover of students making them difficult to sustain. But students know if they don’t continue to raise their voices, these issues will be forgotten and never addressed. 

Despite the global school strikes for climate, these universities are happy to provide Australia with climate scientists, but not do anything to divest from fossil fuels.

Even when university leadership does implement new measures, a lack of transparency ensures that they are shrouded from public view. Although this irresponsibility does not apply to all universities, it is discouraging to see that so many are not being open with their students. Some choose to keep their sexual violence data private; while others have offered no explanation for why, more than two years after the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) report, they have not created an anonymous online tool for reporting cases of sexual violence.

This lack of transparency also explains the inconsistency between universities in ensuring affordable accommodation or fossil fuel divestment. Leading universities, such as the Australian National University (ANU), have vacillated on their commitment to divest from fossil fuels. Students at UNSW struggle to find a place to live.

Yet students are even more reluctant to come forward and speak out about sexual violence unless they are provided transparency about how their complaint will be handled. This dodging and weaving around accountability perpetuates the silence. 

At the end of the day, this democratic deficit causes one to question the true motivations of Australian universities. These institutions are meant to be for a public good: fostering a healthy, safe environment to cultivate bright minds. Yet the true motivations of the university leadership are revealed in the way they treat their student body on the ground, rather than the shiny slogans on an open-day posters.

With international students condescendingly labelled as “cash cows” and universities choosing investment portfolios for supposed stable returns rather than their ethics, is it any wonder that students are untrusting of universities, fearing they care less about student welfare than their pockets? To students, it looks like the university leadership is more interested in pursuing QS rankings than ensuring that the students have reasonable access to mental health services. Is it, therefore, any wonder that students take to these strikes and protests?

…the true motivations of the university leadership are revealed in the way they treat their student body on the ground, rather than the shiny slogans on open-day posters.

This disregard for safety by the universities of their students is a symptom of the patriarchal values still embedded in Australian society. From archaic abortion laws to victim-blaming headlines in newspapers, these issues are still subjected to myths and stereotypical gender roles. In this sense, to solve the problem of sexual violence at our tertiary institutions, we must also address the roots of the cause. Gendered violence is certainly not unique to university spaces. It is a question of changing the gendered narrative which lies at the foundation of Australian culture. But where better to start than the very institutions creating tomorrow’s leaders of our Australian democracy?

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