Last week, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a landmark report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities.
The Change the course report came after years of work by students groups, advocates and journalists to raise awareness of incidents occurring at Australia’s universities. Until now, what we lacked was the data to show the true nature and extent of the issue.
The facts that underpin the Commission’s report are now well known. Our research found that one in five university students were sexual harassed in a university setting (excluding travel to or from university) in 2016. 1.6% of students were sexually assaulted in a university setting in 2015 or 2016.
These statistics are disturbing. So, it is understandable that people want more information about how this data was gathered and what it means for universities.
The data in our report is based on a national student survey designed and delivered in conjunction with Roy Morgan Research, a leading market research company with decades of experience in social research. Throughout the development of the survey we consulted with experts in survey design and methodology, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Department of Defence and the Australian Human Rights Centre at the University of New South Wales.
By conducting the survey among a representative sample of Australian university students and weighting the data based on key demographics, we were able to project statistically reliable findings about the entire student population.
Sample surveys are an accepted, commonly used means of collecting data about a target population – in this case, Australian university students. This is the approach taken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in many of their surveys, including the Personal Safety Survey. The Commission has also taken this approach in previous sexual harassment, age discrimination and pregnancy discrimination surveys conducted over the past 14 years.
The survey was distributed online to a random sample of more than 300,000 students. The sample design was intended to capture the demographics of the university student population more broadly (in terms of gender, level of study, commencing or continuing students, international or domestic students).
The survey attracted more than 30,000 responses, making it the largest survey of its kind in Australia, providing a statistically reliable baseline for future data collection.
Some commentators who have read the survey instrument – which is included in the report – have noted that the Commission took a different approach to asking questions about sexual assault and sexual harassment in different ways. This observation is correct.
Survey respondents were provided with a list of behaviours likely to constitute ‘unlawful sexual harassment’ and asked whether they had experienced these behaviours in a way that was unwelcome in 2015 or 2016. The definition of sexual harassment provided in the report is consistent with that under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).
In relation to sexual assault, survey respondents were provided with the commonly-used definition of sexual assault, rather than a list of possible behaviours, and asked whether they had experienced this in 2015 or 2016.
In an online format, it is difficult to tell whether a survey respondent is becoming distressed by providing detailed information about specific incidents. For this reason – and based on advice we received from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – we adopted an approach that would ensure, as far as possible, the safety of survey participants.
This project has benefited from consultation with and advice given by a range of individuals and organisations with expertise in this area. The Commission also sought and received ethics approval for this research from the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of New South Wales.
Public discussion is welcome, and as the first national survey of its kind, careful scrutiny of our findings is important.
That is why we have included information about our methodology and potential caveats in the body of our report. In coming weeks we will release a technical report from Roy Morgan that provides further information about the survey design and methodology.
Much of the public discussion around the report has focused on the unacceptable rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment. This is understandable and entirely appropriate.
However, I would also point to the finding that the vast majority of students who experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment in a university setting did not make a formal report to their university or seek support. This alone makes it clear that universities need to take action to improve their response to these incidents, by ensuring that students can access the support they need.