THE University of Newcastle has been criticised for disclosing “the bare minimum” about its sexual assault and harassment complaints, and offering a “one-size-fits-all” process for victims, following 14 official complaints in the past three years.
The allegations, made by the advocacy group End Rape on Campus Australia, stem from the group’s submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission and five years of data from freedom-of-information requests.
Of almost 600 official complaints of sexual assault and harassment made to Australian universities in the past five years, 14 were at the University of Newcastle between 2014 and 2016.
Following five complaints of sexual assault or harassment at the university in 2016, two students were expelled, two were excluded from accommodation, one was suspended, one was referred for the university’s “ethics training” and one student was warned.
There were six complaints at the university in 2015, resulting in a suspension, three students being excluded from accommodation, four being referred for ethics training, and four warnings.
After three complaints in 2014, three students were referred for ethics training. The university didn’t disclose any data from 2012 or 2013.
“Newcastle did comply, but they gave the absolute bare minimum. Other universities included full reports of these cases, and detailed descriptions of what the complaints were. Newcastle gave very basic, summary data,” Nina Funnell, co-author of the End Rape on Campus report, said.
“It’s disappointing that their records are incomplete, and don’t even distinguish between sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
In a statement to the Newcastle Herald, the university said, “the University of Newcastle has no tolerance for sexual assault or harassment”.
The university reports its sexual complaints in “aggregated form”, a spokesperson said, to protect the confidentiality of those involved.
The university said it encourages students to report criminal matters to the police, and the disclosed data for 2012 and 2013 doesn’t include complaints where the victim requested no action by the university.
“Last year the University of Newcastle has partnered with Universities Australia and other universities across Australian in a national campaign – ‘Respect. Now. Always.’ – to prevent sexual assault and harassment,” the spokesperson said.
While a victim might expect a legal outcome against their rapist to take two years, Ms Funnell, co-author of the End Rape on Campus report, said it was “concerning” that a “Student Complaints” section of the university website advises “discuss your concerns directly with the person involved and attempt to resolve the matter”.
Another section, headed “Complaints Process: our three-tier resolution model”, says, “we encourage you to informally resolve your concern or issue at the lowest level possible”.
“It’s a one-size-fits-all resolution model that is entirely inappropriate for a victim – to tell them to informally reconcile with the offender,” Ms Funnell said.
“The university should have invested the time, money and effort to devise a more informed, trauma-appropriate resolution model. It’s not like they haven’t been getting complaints.”
The university said its student complaints portal is for allegations of academic and non-academic misconduct, and those with sexual assault and harassment complaints are encouraged to tell staff, the Dean of Students and on-campus doctors.
The Herald was directed to a “Campus Care” section of the university website, with advice for victims of inappropriate and threatening behaviour, and lists of contacts.
But a link for “advice and support for victims of sexual assault” didn’t work.
The university women’s convener, Lucinda Iacono, said the 14 sexual complaints to the university in the past three years didn’t represent the scale of the problem.
“I could name more women who’ve come to me. The rate of women reporting these issues is low, and definitely more has happened,” Ms Iacono said.
“There’s a plethora of things, from people saying things [to victims] that are inappropriate, to people doing things. It’s important to recognise it isn’t always someone pulling a woman into the bushes.”
The End Rape on Campus report is one of 1845 submissions to a Human Rights Commission survey.
The survey is supported by Universities Australia, including Newcastle.