Friday, 17 November 2023
Questions without Notice
Universities: Physical and Sexual Harassment and Violence
Thank you, President. My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Education. News reports today say that Minister Clare is considering the idea of a national student ombudsman to protect students from physical or sexual assaults on campus or in university accommodation. Minister, sexual violence on campuses is widespread and systemic. Hundreds of students are sexually assaulted every single week. Every student has the right to be safe at uni, but it's clear universities have failed to protect students and that the government must step in. Tireless campaigning from advocates, including EROC, Fair Agenda, and the STOP Campaign, has brought the government to the table to finally act. Minister, can you confirm that the government—
Thank you, Senator Faruqi. I am in agreement with you that there is a very serious problem when it comes to sexual violence on Australian university campuses, and this is something the Albanese government takes very seriously. The 2021 National Student Safety Survey found that 16.1 per cent of students had been sexually harassed and 4.5 per cent of students had been sexually assaulted during their time at university. And, as I'm sure you're aware, Senator Faruqi, in last month's NTEU sexual harassment survey report, 29 per cent of respondents said they had had a personal experience of sexual harassment while 50 per cent said they were aware of others who had been sexually harassed. Those figures are simply not good enough.
The Australian Universities Accord interim report, released earlier this year, made five recommendations, and one of these is the need to improve university governance, with a focus on ensuring students' safety on campus. As you'd be aware, Senator Faruqi, the Minister for Education, Mr Clare, has established a working group with representatives from each state and territory and has appointed Ms Patty Kinnersly to this working group. Ms Kinnersly is the CEO of Our Watch, a national leader in the primary prevention of violence against women and children in Australia. The minister has previously told the parliament that it's time to act and that universities have not done enough. He's met with representatives from the STOP campaign, End Rape on Campus, and Fair Agenda. Amongst many things, they raised issues regarding residential colleges, lack of information on how to make a complaint, and the lack of formal feedback following a complaint.
Turning to the issues around the ombudsman, the working group is expected to deliver draft recommendations to education ministers next week. The minister has already said that they are considering a number of actions, including the establishment of a national student ombudsman. The minister has also said that the status quo is not good enough and that this government is serious about making a difference on this very important issue.
Minister, students are suffering from violence on campus right now, so action cannot wait any longer. When will the government set up an independent body or a national student safety ombudsman to hold universities accountable for failing to keep students safe?
Senator Faruqi, as I said, the working group that minister Clare established is due to report back and provide draft recommendations to education ministers next week. They are expected to include the establishment of a national student ombudsman. Education ministers have been briefed by the chair of the working group on early considerations for ensuring student and staff safety. One of those emerging recommendations—and we'll have to wait and see what the report says—is a new national student ombudsman. Any such new body would need to have teeth to meet the needs and expectations of students across Australia. The full scope of draft recommendations is being finalised by the working group and will be provided to education ministers for consideration. I give Minister Clare credit for taking on this issue. It's something that has needed doing for quite some time. Let's hope this ombudsman gets up and running soon and can actually start making a difference on university campuses.
Minister, TEQSA, the higher education regulator, has been totally missing in action on student safety. Shamefully, TEQSA has failed to even investigate complaints of sexual violence. And in estimates we learned that they've totally canned their reworking of a good-practice note on addressing sexual violence in higher education. Minister, will the government commit to an independent inquiry into TEQSA to ensure that the failures of TEQSA are never repeated again?
Thank you, Senator Faruqi, and you're right: issues regarding the performance of TEQSA have been raised at Senate estimates committee hearings. And again, as you would be aware, the government is already undertaking a review of the higher education sector through the Universities Accord process, and one of the things being considered through that process is TEQSA's role. I would expect, then, that the issues you're raising are exactly the types of things that are being considered as part of that Universities Accord process, in addition to other issues that have arisen in relation to TEQSA.
The final report from the Accord panel will be provided to government by the end of this year. We'll of course consider those recommendations, and should they have anything to say about TEQSA then I'm sure Minister Clare will be taking the appropriate action.