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At the University of New England – reputedly the ‘most dangerous university for women’ in Australia – college student leaders have been themselves accused of sexual offences. By Nina Funnell.

Student leaders accused of university assaults

An independent review of residential colleges at Australia’s “most dangerous university for women” has found student leaders stand accused of several sexual assault and sexual harassment offences. These student leaders are the same people victims are expected to turn to for help when they have been sexually assaulted or harassed.

The recently released “Independent Review of Residential Colleges at the University of New England” was commissioned after a nationwide survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) found UNE students had suffered the highest rate of sexual assault, both on and off campus, of any university in the country.

According to the AHRC, more than 14 per cent of female students at UNE were victims of a sexual assault across 2015/2016. Over a third of those students were sexually assaulted in a university setting. On-campus sexual assaults at UNE occurred at more than double the national average of the same type.

A second report, by End Rape on Campus Australia in 2018, also noted a toxic culture of hazing and sexual exploitation within UNE’s residential colleges.

In response, UNE commissioned a third inquiry, the independent review focusing on the university’s residential colleges, conducted also by the AHRC.

The report once again found evidence of sexual assault, noting that 6.1 per cent of current female college students have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape or sexual assault since starting at a UNE college. Less than a quarter of those victims reported their most recent experience to authorities.

One female student recounted: “I had a boy who was essentially a stranger come into my room while I was asleep, jump on top of me and start kissing me saying, ‘You want to have sex with me, I know you do.’ ” She told the man to leave and reported the incident to a student leader, only to be reportedly told, “Ah, well, you probably should just lock your door when you’re asleep.”

Another student recounted how a friend was assaulted during a drunken night of partying. She disclosed the assault to a member of the college staff, only to be told that “maybe she shouldn’t have been drinking and putting herself in that position”.

The UNE review, which received submissions from students who attended the university’s colleges at some point between 2015 and 2018, also found evidence of hazing and intimidation at these institutions, including initiation rituals where male students were told to strip, and had their hands duct-taped behind their backs, before being ordered to run around the college grounds naked.

Female students described being made to give lap dances to male students while heavily intoxicated or run a gauntlet of students while being “slapped on the ass by everybody”. Other initiations involved the ingestion of drugs, including “dirty water bongs”, and other bizarre concoctions such as wasabi on Weet-Bix. A previous report on UNE included descriptions of a ritual where students at one college were encouraged to compete to drink a concoction of alcohol, cow manure and other students’ vomit.

While several UNE college students strongly denied the existence of hazing to the AHRC researchers, when pressed, those students were discovered to have a poor understanding of what constitutes hazing. More broadly, researchers found the students had a limited understanding of reporting mechanisms, and there was evidence of a culture of bystander apathy, with 62 per cent of college students indicating they took no action when they had witnessed an assault or harassment. The report also found hazing initiations created fear, which entrenched student hierarchies, making it more difficult for victims to speak up in general.

However, according to Sharna Bremner, founder and director of End Rape on Campus Australia, the most significant finding relates to the role of student leaders themselves.

“We’ve already had two reports prior to this one demonstrating that sexual assault and hazing at UNE is a problem. What’s interesting about this latest report is that it has found that student leaders are not only responsible for creating the culture but, at times, some elected student leaders have been accused of committing sexual assault offences against others. That link has always been suspected, but this is the first report which explicitly analyses it.”

According to this latest report, researchers were provided with “a number of examples where student leaders were the perpetrators of sexual assault and sexual harassment” and allegations made in written submissions were “supported by survey data, with student leaders identified as alleged perpetrators (either as the sole perpetrator, or as one of multiple perpetrators) in multiple incidents of both sexual assault and sexual harassment”.

Researchers also noted student leaders elected through popularity contests were more likely to have been accused than those appointed to the position on merit.

“Two occasions that I know of, both involve current leaders of my college,” said one student.

“The people that assaulted and harassed me are now [residential fellows],” said another.

A third student said more care needed to be taken when selecting student leaders, adding that “a guy who was a known predator was still given the master key”.

Researchers also heard examples of student leaders “covering up” allegations of assault and harassment to protect fellow leaders or their friends. They observed that student leaders often dominated focus-group interviews by speaking first and would even “correct” statements made by non-leaders who appeared “hesitant” to comment but who were far more forthcoming and critical in private submissions and interviews.

“None of this is surprising,” says Lucy (not her real name), a former UNE college student who reported to her college, the university and the local police that she was raped by a student leader in her college dorm room.

“When the first nationwide report came out, which ranked UNE as the worst university – the most dangerous university for women – I was not for one second surprised,” she says. “And it’s no surprise now that the student leaders are some of the ones doing it; they have the power.

“I was 18 when a student leader raped me. Only after I reported him did I find out that he already had other sexual assault allegations made against him from other students at the college. If the head of college had expelled him after the first complaint, mine could have been prevented.”

Lucy says the student leaders at her college were considered “untouchable” and were often selected because they embodied the values associated with the college culture, including binge drinking and being good at football. She said victims shouldn’t be expected to report to student leaders “when [those leaders] might be part of the problem”.

“Someone in a more vulnerable position is not going to dob them in, and there is a huge incidence of people not reporting because you already know what the outcome is going to be,” she says. “Students with a sense of entitlement [may be more likely to offend] if they also believe they won’t get in trouble.”

The reviewers also found that, in addition to acting as “first responders”, student leaders were also asked to sit on sexual misconduct disciplinary committees in select cases, which raised serious concerns about objectivity, confidentiality and expertise.

Contacted for comment, UNE’s vice-chancellor, Professor Annabelle Duncan, said the university was committed to implementing all of the AHRC’s 25 university-specific recommendations, including introducing anonymous reporting.

The university will also take a “no-tolerance” approach to allegations made against student leaders, who will be suspended from their leadership responsibilities while allegations are being investigated.

“UNE is not shying away from the cultural change required in our residential college system,” Duncan told The Saturday Paper. “We can’t change what has happened in the past at our colleges, but we do control what will happen going forward and it is encouraging to see positive cultural changes already occurring within our residential system.”

At a national level, a second Australia-wide university sexual assault survey is scheduled to be conducted in the coming year, as per a previous recommendation in the previous national survey.

Sarah Tynan, the 2019 National Union of Students women’s officer, says research will always be important but must be accompanied by action on the ground.

“Continuous research will help to pinpoint which interventions have been successful and where more action is required,” she says. “It’s important to find out what changes introduced since the last survey have worked and which ones need to be adapted.”

Students around the country are also calling for a federal taskforce to hold universities accountable and for updates to the design of the next national sexual assault survey. The methodology of the national survey published in 2017 was criticised for failing to observe international best practice and that not all components of the project received full ethics approval.

A spokesperson for the federal minister for women, Marise Payne, said the government will also fund Our Watch to work with the university sector to develop a training module for university students to better recognise and respond to domestic, family and sexual violence.

“The government is committed to ensuring Australian universities are safe, inclusive and welcoming places,” the spokesperson said.

National Sexual Assault hotline 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "Leaders in the pack". Subscribe here.

Nina Funnell
is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and a director of End Rape on Campus Australia. She was the lead author of the 2018 ‘Red Zone Report’.