What does the United States higher education community have to learn from sexual assault prevention efforts in Australia?

Last fall, EVERFI colleague Erin McClintock wrote about findings from an Australian human rights commission that examined sexual harassment and assault rates among university students. This commission’s bombshell report uncovered significant levels of sexual harassment and assault in university-controlled spaces, such as classrooms, residence halls, and university-affiliated events. The commission provided eight recommendations to Australia’s colleges and universities for addressing this issue, which many of Australia’s 43 universities publicly pledged to adopt. Those recommendations fell into five areas: leadership and governance; changing attitudes and behaviors; improving university responses to sexual assault; monitoring and evaluation of these efforts; and addressing specifically the cultural  issues of the residential colleges.

This last recommendation requires a bit of additional context. According to the College Board, in the U.S., 40% of students enrolled at public institutions, and 64% of students enrolled at private institutions, live on-campus; for both groups, 20% or fewer live with their parents. In Australia, however, fewer than 10% of students live in residential colleges, the Aussie complement to our residence halls. It is far more common for students to live with their parents and commute to a nearby campus to pursue their postsecondary degrees. And yet, students living in university-controlled housing reported the highest incidences of sexual assault and harassment. In one analysis, students of residential colleges comprised only 7% of the survey respondents, but 34% of those who said they had experienced an assault.

As Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, is quoted within the report: “Swift and deliberate action with clear accountability is now required by universities to improve their response to sexual violence. I am confident that universities are up to the challenge.” Six months on, what has happened Down Under? According to several advocacy organizations, not much yet.  

[To be fair, here in the US, the progress timeline for effectively addressing sexual harassment and assault at our institutions of higher education is measured in years (if not decades), not months. We don’t have any room to finger-wag our southern hemisphere colleagues.]

Fair Agenda, an Australian women’s rights organization recently published a report on the educational efforts happening at 148 of the 225 residential colleges in Australia’s 43 universities, and it is the scope of their findings, and the questions they asked, that I think is worth examining and considering further here in the U.S.

Check this out–students and parents in the U.S. can look at this report and examine an institution’s prevention efforts down to the individual residence:

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I have written before about how important it is for college-bound students and their parents to ask questions about sexual assault prevention efforts on their college visits and to consider a campus’s efforts in sexual assault prevention as a part of their decision-making process.

Imagine how much more effective it would be for prospective students and their parents to make informed decisions related to school’s commitment to health, safety, and well-being if they had this granular level of data to consider. Imagine how much more pressure students, alumni, and other stakeholders could leverage pushing campuses to adopt effective prevention practices if they had apples-to-apples comparative data about a campus’s efforts in relation to its peers.

Of course, there is a scope issue when we think about applying this level of transparency in prevention efforts to colleges and universities stateside. After all, as compared to the four dozen post-secondary schools in Australia, as of 2015, there are over three thousand four-year colleges in the U.S., and nearly two thousand two-year institutions. However, we do expect every college and university to provide information about their sexual assault prevention efforts through the Annual Security Report (ASR) required by the Clery Act. We also expect that all colleges in the country provide other kinds of detailed information, such as the College Scorecard data that tracks completion rates, time to degree, debt and repayment data–all of which is intended to increase transparency and help parents and students make informed choices when it comes to selection. So there is precedent for this kind of data to be collected and distributed.

The problem, though, is that the Department of Education has not standardized how campuses provide information about their efforts in sexual assault prevention and education as they have, for example, with crime statistic reporting, or college debt burden. While the narrative format guidance offered in the Clery Handbook does provide the opportunity for campuses to include a rich overview of their efforts, without some form of standardization of information offered it is exceedingly difficult to compare one campus’s effort to another in a meaningful way. Moreover, without some background knowledge of what makes for good prevention, it is hard to assess whether what a campus reports in their ASR is likely to be effective or not. And, let’s be honest–not many people actually read their institution’s Annual Security and Fire Safety reports. I did, but I’m weird like that.

What is left, then, for parents, students, and prospective employees to review and compare here in the U.S are institutional crime statistics which are standardized but which, given low reporting rates for sexual assault, are an incomplete picture of a campus’s efforts at best. Comparing zeros to zeros doesn’t get us very far in understanding whether a campus is doing the best work possible to create a safe and respectful environment for its students, faculty, and staff.

While it would be difficult, we could make this change. But, even at my most optimistic, I know creating federally standardized sexual assault prevention reporting requirements is a few years down the road at least. So what could campuses do now? Take a page from Fair Agenda’s playbook and self-report, in clear and accessible ways, what education you are providing to all members of your campus. Do our Down Under advocate colleagues one better by creating a prevention dashboard to track progress towards prevention goals, and let current students and future students, parents, alumni and community stakeholders know–and understand–the full picture of your comprehensive efforts to create a safe, healthy, respectful community.*

*What might a robust sexual assault prevention scorecard look like for colleges and universities? Check out EVERFI’s Sexual Assault Diagnostic Inventory (SADI)–a free tool that helps institutions benchmark their prevention efforts against research-informed best practices, and that provides concrete recommendations for colleges to strengthen their efforts. The SADI is available to any campus that is willing to join the Campus Prevention Network and take the pledge. Learn more and get started here.


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