In 2017, The Australian Human Rights Commission released the Change the Course report on sexual assault and harassment at Australian Universities. The report surveyed 30930 students at 39 universities, of which 1 in 5 had experienced sexual harassment in a university setting in 2016. UWA results found that 28% of students experienced sexual harassment, and 2.20% were sexually assault. I sat down with the 2018 Guild President Megan Lee, and Women’s Officer Roshni Kaila to talk about these findings, UWA’s response and what more still needs to be done.
Since the AHRC survey, there have been various actions plans to minimise sexual assault and harassment on campus and make campuses safe, what have UWA been doing?
Roshni Kaila: 18 months before the AHRC survey results were released, the Safety on Campus working group was established.
Megan Lee: It was over the terms of 2016 and 2017, it was to address the issue of safety on campus but then the Respect. Now. Always Campaign was announced after getting a bit of traction and lobbying from the NUS (National Union of Students) to do that. It turned into the Respect. Now. Always working group, so a lot of things happened (in the lead up to the AHRC report), and there are still a number of very large projects that are on-going to the lead that obviously couldn’t be completed by the report being released. One of them is rewriting and relooking at the institutional responses to reporting. So, if a student reports an assault to a lecturer who does that lecturer then go to, if they make a complaint to security who does security then go to, because not everybody is going to make a complaint directly to the Complaints Resolution Unit. Also how do we then capture that information in way that is confidential but useful to the university and aid in future reporting. So that’s a big project that’s still ongoing because there’s so many people they need to talk to, and has highlighted a lot of issues in terms of training that needs to be delivered to staff. And in the lead up there was a lot of things done in the sexual misconduct policy. A contract with lifeline with UWA for a UWA specific lifeline number, they did fast track counselling appointments for anyone that was effected by the Survey results, but they were temporary (6-12 months after the release of the results).
RK: I think, not to launch into criticism nice and early. But we have a document as part of the Action Plan, to record everything that’s been done, such as the phonecard holders with security numbers. Last year the Women’s Department run a survey on lighting on campus, but a lot of the document is very full as they have been spearheaded by us (the Guild).
ML: Every Guild project is either completed or ongoing. The responding to disclosures and sexual assault training that we provide to clubs is always going to be marked as an ongoing action item. But I think in terms of a big criticism is that, at least since my terms started, we’ve moved to quarterly meetings (about progress on sexual assault on campus) where it used to be monthly, things used to happen a lot faster, there was a lot more input especially from students, and since then we’ve met less regularly and it feels like we come back to the meeting there’s been very little change to the action register, like it’s been forgotten about.
RK: It acts more as an update of what might have happened and a discussion for possible things that could happen.
ML: A lot of decision making doesn’t happen. When I was on it in 2017 we sat down, reviewed policies and made decisions on projects. Now it’s a lot of reporting back on what’s potentially happening. It’s a very large committee and not a lot happens because there’s so many stakeholders.
Why was there that change from meeting monthly to meeting quarterly?
ML: Because a lot of work did get done before the release of the AHRC survey, and so it was sort of seen as appropriate for less frequent meetings because a lot of the bigger ongoing projects needed more time, so moving to quarterly would have allowed for more meaty (bigger) projects to have some progress and take some traction. A lot of that work sits with Complaints Resolution Unit, they’re doing a lot of great work with going through projects, but a lot of the other stakeholders not a lot of progress has been made.
What have been some struggles/obstacles faced in either campaigning for these changes in policies, or in the planning and implementing of them?
ML: Some of it’s understandable in that the university is like a massive cruise liner and if you want to change it off its course it takes a long time because there’s so many processes of governance. Those things are important and there to make sure that changes aren’t being made without all the stakeholders being involved and that things are done right the first time. The reporting lines and the way that the institution responds to reports from students or staff is taking such a long time because this university has 3000 employees and nearly 25000 students, and so there’s so many avenues for both staff and students to report. And you want to make sure you do it right the first time so nobody is in a situation where they make a disclosure and it’s not handled properly. So, some of its understandable, some of it’s not.
RK: The number one thing that I’ve noticed is common everywhere, is that the university doesn’t want to take responsibility for a lot of the issues.
ML: The last meeting we went to, do you remember that?
RK: Are we allowed to say? There wasn’t anything serious, all we got was a ‘oh, NDA (National Day of Action) is coming up, we need to organise some responses’.
ML: Yeah and we inquired about what the university was doing about annual releasing of their data, I know from multiple sources that all the GO8 Universities have agreed to release and report their and we’re still getting ‘we don’t know how to capture that data’
Was there reason giving as to why they’re unable to capture that data?
ML: No, and it was one of the reasons why I met individually with the head of strategy planning, making it aware that I was concerned that it wasn’t going to happen (the capturing and releasing of data) and I thought everyone made a commitment that it was going to happen every year, and that having 12 months to figure out how to do it wasn’t going to be an issue and it sort of slipped by the wayside.
RK: There’s just a general, a lot of talk and no action. They show a good commitment to things in the updating of the website and the emails we get. They talk about having a commitment to making campus safer and a zero-tolerance policy. I have been chatting with security about getting a SMS service so that security can be accessible if someone doesn’t want to speak to a security officer, or if someone is deaf or hard of hearing (which has now been rolled out in the last few weeks). That was a suggestion I had a while ago, and the only reason we’re having a meeting next week about it is because I’ve had to keep following up on it. And for me, who studies full-time, there’s only so much I can do, and only so much in my power.
ML: What I find particularly frustrating, is that it’s a unique situation that the Guild President has. In that I work with every level of the university. I meet with the manager of Campus Security and the Vice-Chancellor. Very few people within the university sector has that problem of working with middle management and the executive officers. The executive go ‘yes, we’ll do what you want and fix it’ and then you go to the people who are responsible for actioning those things and run into those problems Roshni described. Which is often very hard because you have to get the executives to push their managers who often get resentful on working with you on those issues. And I understand that everyone’s pressed thin in this university. Everyone’s understaffed, underfunded, but it’s just one of those things that make our job, as student representatives, difficult because there’s only so much we can do. And we can push for things, but we’re not the ones that have the expertise to put them into action, such as lighting on campus.
RK: With lighting on campus, the thing that we hear all the time from the university is that there’s not enough money. They made it very clear to us if we wanted to put in an application for funding, we had to prioritise areas, because there’s only so much we’re going to get. We figured out where there are serious problem areas, so where do we go from here? How do we make an application? I, and the Guild collectively, are willing to put in a joint application, what do we need to do for it? And we didn’t get an answer. If we don’t know how to apply for funding, we’re not going to get lighting, but also, we’re not in a position to figure it out.
ML: It’s not our responsibility either. It’s not something we have direct control over. If you look at the Action Plan, everything we have direct control over is done… we make sure (during one year terms) that things are done and in place. That just doesn’t happen in the university. I don’t think it’s malicious intent, but also I wouldn’t be surprised if institutions don’t want to admit they have a problem by doing something about it. But it’s not bad to admit you have a problem, and it looks better if you address it than ignore it all together.
How important is it to create a safe culture and space on campus? Especially regarding building a sense of campus culture that the UWA Guild prides itself on?
ML: I think it’s incredibly important, there’s so much you can do in terms of the after effects, how to support students after something happens, and how we can deal with things that aren’t traumatising for them. But there’s also a responsibility we have, as the organisation that oversees clubs and runs events on campus, that we do not create environments where that kind of behaviour is perpetuated. The Guild has definitely had a very troubled history with that, with the review of orientation back in 2012. That really pushed us to look at how we were failing our students. My job is to ensure that all students have the rights afforded to them under the Charter of Student Rights. That’s not just the responsibility of the university. It’s not just me going to the university, ‘you need to keep our students safe’, it’s also reflected on the Guild saying, ‘what are we doing to uphold that charter?’. At the end of the day we can do everything we can and sometimes you won’t be able to stop absolute monsters. But you need to be there to support those students who are effected, and I think on the support side of things we’re very good at that. This year we introduced disclosure training to a lot of key student leaders, so that not only am I looking after the students that need to make disclosures, but we’re looking after the students on the Guild who know and can look after themselves and the student who has made a disclosure. We have outstanding services like Student Assist, all those staff have required training… We need to know that students are running safe, professional and inclusive events. Just because clubs aren’t necessarily the Guild, they are still affiliates of the Guild and are still our responsibility… whether that’s at a club event or in the classroom. Changes have been made to student leadership training, and is reviewed every year, and has come leaps and bounds since I first did it. In terms of awareness around sexual assault and harassment and what sort of behaviours perpetuate rape culture and what kind of actions that club take that don’t foster a safe and inclusive environment. Including the knowledge that alcohol doesn’t cause assault, but making sure alcohol is managed safely, and that students don’t run into issues about not being believed because of that.
RK: A big part of that is ensuring that people know what they’re liable for, what they’re responsible for with event management and things like that. Knowing that if something goes wrong, that you’re going to be responsible and there can be some form of disciplinary or legal action against you.
ML: We can’t always stop people from doing the wrong thing. But we can prepare event managers to understand their liable and do everything they can to ensure that that risk is mitigated and everyone is kept safe and also how to respond to those issues appropriately as well. And I’ve definitely seen, over my time, the number of clubs that are coming to us and saying, ‘this person has done this behaviour and we want to do something about it.’ And I think it’s largely part to that training, that student clubs know that that type of behaviour is not okay, and it doesn’t matter what sort of club you (Discipline, FaCSoC, party club), that behaviour is never okay.
So there’s been obvious changes around campus culture?
ML: Yeah, definitely. There’s always room for improvement, you still have the day to day, we’re still often having to pull up clubs, or even ourselves. Things like ‘that’s a bit sexist, that objectifies women, that feeds into rape culture’. And getting people to understand the links between making that kind of joke isn’t appropriate because it feeds into certain ideas and behaviours.
RK: I think the thing is that, yes it’s taken very seriously, but a lot of the time it gets very politicised as well. Guild elections, you see it happening. You talk about it a lot and people don’t take it seriously, but they do when it becomes political or abuse it when it becomes political.
ML: It’s not something that’s supposed to suddenly become a pertinent issue in September.
It is an issue that gets clouded and is seen as an attack on men or institutions, and does become politicised. How do we go about still having these discussions and making changes despite this?
RK: I read this really good thing a while ago and it was “why do people constantly think that feminism is about man-hating, the whole concept of the patriarchy is that systems and institutions are designed to focus and privilege men.” And sexual assault is a bit different because there’s a substantial number of men who are victims, but at the same time, overwhelmingly perpetrators are men. It’s not about attacking men, it’s about dismantling the idea that men should hold the positions of power over women. I hear from women things that are misogynist and I hear from men things that are feminist. It’s not a binary that all men are bad and all women are good. We live in a world that inherently doesn’t privilege women, or makes it difficult for men who are victims of sexual assault to come forward and admit it because its emasculating. The point is that whatever happens we don’t want to discriminate based on gender, but there also should be a recognition that a lot of these issues do disproportionately disadvantage women. It doesn’t mean if a man comes up and says ‘this has happened to me’ we’re going to treat him any differently. It’s that there’s a lot of underlying attitudes towards gender that, in 99% of cases, feed into this issue.
ML: Yeah, that’s basically it. We just need to understand that whilst these are issues for all students, they are inherently gendered issues. Whilst we never would want to diminish someone’s experiences and the way that they feel, it’s also incredibly important to recognise that there’s so many things women and non-binary people do in their day to day life to protect themselves from the idea of a threat of something that wouldn’t cross the minds of other people. Or wouldn’t cross their minds until something happened to someone they know.
The Consent Matters Course is a non-compulsory online course available on LMS, one that students have to self-enrol in and find themselves. Does the Guild feel as if this is satisfactory in terms of sex and consent education?
RK: I’ve had a lot of positive feedback around it and I know the university has too. But the reason that there’s positive feedback is because it’s the only form of consent training that some people have ever received, myself included. I think the aim and intentions of the course are in the right place, and it was designed for the right reasons. That’s the end of the nice things I’m going to say about it. Megan wrote a really long document about things we don’t like about it.
ML: For the most part it’s quite infantilising. And yes, for a lot of people that is the first ever time they’ve looked at consent training, and it should be something that happens in Primary and High School. That shouldn’t just be sex education it should be sex and consent education. The reasoning is that students should know these things before they get to university. But the number of cases seeing final year and postgraduate students going through discipline cases with the university around sexual misconduct, shows to me that we have a disconnect between students coming into this university and understanding what sex and consent is. So, it is incredibly infantilising, because yes, some people not know about it, but they’re not going to take it seriously if you’re treating them like children when you’re teaching them about it. So generally, without getting into too much detail, out of the National Survey 90% of students reported that they didn’t know how to seek help through the university after they’d been assaulted or harassed. The Consent Matters course has no campus specific information about support services, where to report, just to check your university website. That’s enough of a barrier for students to not go and find those things.
RK: You can skip through a lot of slides, I did that because I was overseas with bad internet. There’s either a lot of text or a lot of cartoon, and I feel as if there could be an in between. The information is really good, but it’s not conveyed in a useful way.
ML: There’s a lot of harmful attitudes perpetuated, such as talking about consent in half terms. Where realistically consent exists or it doesn’t, and it can be revoked at any time, and it should never be partially present. It’s an affirmative yes, and if you don’t have an affirmative yes, it’s a no. There’s just a lot of outdated ways of looking at consent, and a lot of harmful attitudes present.
RK: The licence for it was $50000 for 3 years. We believe with that money or less we can make a UWA specific one.
ML: A big thing is that it was very much a quick win approach that was taken. That the releas is coming up, we need to have something in place, so Consent Matters. There was a big thing about whether or not it was good, no students were invited to actually do the course, and they put in a funding application, co-sponsored by the Guild.
RK: They put in a funding application and didn’t tell us.
ML: We already have a framework with AACE and CARS, I don’t imagine it would have cost $50000 to create a similar one for this. That’s easy to use, is compulsory for students to take in their first semester, and is tied into the policies and expectations of students at UWA.
RK: We’ve raised it with the university, submitted our concerns and what we want to see instead. We would like a UWA specific module that is interactive, requires people to engage and answer questions. I think the best way to get it through to the university is that it doesn’t specifically have to be about sexual misconduct, it should incorporate all the behavioural expectations. Such as the Charter of Student Rights, what is expected of you as a UWA student in all forms of behaviour, but also educates people on consent and sexual harassment. That if you do something wrong you are jeopardising your education because you will be reported, and there’ll be disciplinary action against you. That ties into creating a safe and inclusive culture where people know what’s wrong, and that they’ll be individually held responsible for their actions. I am firmly of the opinion that by the time the Consent Matters license is up, we can spend about that same amount of money [on something] that’s UWA specific and informative.
Lastly, what is the process for students seeking help and reporting harassment and sexual assault?
ML: There are many, the main one would be the University’s Complaint Resolution Unit. You can make a disclosure online, or in person via email or over the phone. They’re very good at telling you at which point a complaint will need to be actioned because the univesirty has the responsibility to do so. But you can make an online anonymous report, and revisit it if you’d like to, and make it a complaint. There’s two levels, a disclosure, and at that level you can remain anonymous, and the Complaint resolution unit won’t action anything without your consent. Then a certain point where it enters a formal complaint and goes through the complaints process. You can also go to UWA counselling. You can make a disclosure to Student Assist or the Guild, but there’s a limited extent to which we can apply student discipline because we aren’t the university. But we’re there to support students through whatever they choose to do, whether that’s the Complaints process or a general well-being perspective. An important thing to know is the university will do what they can, and thanks to last year Guild council, and Hannah Matthews (2017 Women’s Officer), a lot more is now within the remit of the University. If something occurs off-campus but at an official club or FacSoc event, as well as if it’s happening between students online. They will support you however they can, and if something needs to go to the police to further action that the university will support you through that process as well.
RK: It’s tricky because as the survey said, the vast majority of students don’t know where to go. And they’re more likely to make a disclosure if they feel comfortable doing it, and only the most pro-active and those willing to handle it, because it can be quite a traumatic process going through the complaints process. A majority of people will go to friends or members of staff, and that’s where consent training comes in.
A concise version interview was originally published in the 2018 Print Edition of Damsel Magazine.
Posted on January 23, 2019