Over a quarter of RMIT students experienced sexual harassment on campus in 2016, according to a national survey published yesterday.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) report is the first of its kind in Australia. Over 30,000 university students across the country were surveyed, with 579 responses from RMIT. The report reveals the full extent of sexual harassment and assault on university campuses across Australia, and highlights the past failures of academic institutions to support victim-survivors.
According to the report, 2.1 per cent of RMIT students were sexually assaulted in 2015-2016, with this figure sitting at 1.6 per cent nation-wide. Numbers are significantly higher for female students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and LGBTQI+ students. The report also showed women were three times as likely as men to have been sexually assaulted in a university setting, and twice as likely to have been sexually harassed.
Following the AHRC’s report, RMIT has indicated it will implement all nine of the Commission’s recommendations, which include mandatory ‘responding to disclosure’ training for all staff, consent education for students, and the commitment to a process of restorative justice.
In a statement made yesterday, RMIT University Vice-Chancellor and President Martin Bean CBE said the report is “confronting” for the university sector.
“We are committed to doing everything we can to reduce these numbers,” he said.
“One incident is one too many. Sexual harassment and sexual assault is something we do not and will not tolerate.”
However, the study also revealed a general lack of awareness in the RMIT student body regarding how to report sexual harassment and assault. Over 60 per cent of respondents knew nothing or very little about where to go within RMIT to make a complaint, and only 1 per cent of students had ever made a formal complaint.
As a result, RMIT will adopt a number of campus specific measures, including surveying students annually, and making it easier for them to know their rights and report incidents. The University has also pledged to ensure its libraries are safe and respectable, given 8 per cent of sexual harassment cases reported at RMIT occurred within library spaces.
But while these proactive measures are a positive sign from RMIT, the University hasn’t always been on the front foot regarding sexual harassment on campus.
Miranda*, an RMIT student who completed her undergraduate degree in 2016, suffered persistent sexual harassment from one of her male tutors during her years of study.
“He would make really inappropriate comments, he was touchy-feely, and he would single me out in class,” she said.
“He would talk to me about personal things, inappropriate things – about his ex-girlfriend and everything. It was just incredibly unprofessional and it was constant.”
“It was first year and I wanted to make a good impression, (so) I didn’t say anything.”
But the harassment continued into her second year, which forced Miranda to take action.
“I said enough is enough, I’m not going to put up with it anymore,” she said.
“As soon as I started rejecting him, ignoring and avoiding him, his behaviour changed completely. He went from greeting me every day to calling me out in class, being rude, and giving me really low grades on my work for no real reason.”
“I don’t know how I went from getting straight HDs in all of my first year classes to scraping credits in second year. I was working my ass off and barely passing.”
However, Miranda said it was the response from her senior lecturer when she reported the harassment that was most disappointing.
“I took it to a senior member of staff, and they told me that they were aware of his behaviour. Their solution was to give me the class resources so I wouldn’t have to attend his class. They basically told me that if I decided to take it any further, I wouldn’t be able to be kept anonymous and he would know that I had made a complaint.”
“They told me to think about the impact that it was going to have… that we had a small cohort. I was really not expecting that.
“I just felt really let down. I was made to feel like I was making a big deal out of nothing.”
Miranda said she would have taken the complaint further if she had the chance, as the experience was having a serious impact upon her grades.
“I think if I had support from the university, or even at a student level, I would have had the confidence to take it further. I wouldn’t have accepted getting bad grades for no reason. I wouldn’t have let it go.”
RMIT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education, Professor Belinda Tynan, said the University’s leaders are committed to accepting institutional responsibility for past occurrences of harassment and assault.
“Students and alumni who want to discuss issues are always welcome to contact the Safer Community team at RMIT, where we’ve increased the number of specialist counselling staff,” she said.
“We are also introducing a program of restorative justice, which is about listening to victims/survivors of historic incidents.”
President of the RMIT Student Union, Abena Dove, said students who don’t feel comfortable speaking to university staff can also receive support at a peer level from RUSU representatives.
“It’s really unfortunate when people do end up slipping through the cracks and aren’t able to get in touch with someone that can help them,” she said.
“But when people do come to the Union and disclose that information, we genuinely care about these students, and we’re here to support them.”
Help is available via the National University Support Line, which will be staffed 24/7 until the end of November. Its number is 1800 572 224.
If this story raises any issues for you, contact 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
*In order to protect Miranda’s identity, Catalyst has not published her real name.
Featured image via RMIT University’s Facebook page, 2016.