Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) joins the many voices speaking out against Universities Australia dropping their commitment to $1.5 million in funding into sexual consent campaigning across Australian universities. Instead, Universities Australia chief executive, Catriona Jackson, has proposed all 39 universities hold a sector-wide ‘Respect at Uni’ week at the beginning of next year.

This is an appalling decision that clearly lacks any understanding of the prevalent and complex issues of sexual violence on campuses. SUPRA joins End Rape on Campus, Fair Agenda, and the National Union of Students to call for an independent body, led by experts in sexual violence, to provide best practice guidelines to universities across Australia. We write this call to action as both a group of allies and those with lived experience of sexual violence and harassment on campus.

We recognise the efforts of the University of Sydney around the ongoing issues of sexual assault, harassment, and harm – on and off campus – by students towards other students. The University has funded and established the Safer Communities Office, staffed by specialists to provide an immediate response to any student experiencing any type of sexual misconduct, domestic violence, bullying and harassment, and issues relating to modern slavery. We also note Safer Communities has a Prevention Education Specialist role, who carries out training to residential colleges and HDR supervisors. We applaud the work of these specialists in both responding to and preventing sexual violence on campus.

However, there are still many student cohorts that are at high risk of sexual violence. As the postgraduate student union, we want to address the high risk HDR students continue to face. Female HDR students in male-dominated fields are at a particularly heightened risk of sexual assault and sexual harassment due to the large power imbalance between supervisors and students. This risk is compounded if students are disabled, First Nations students, international students, or from CALD backgrounds. Of course, any student can experience sexual violence no matter their background, and it is never acceptable.

A university can have all the reporting structures in place, but until the University addresses the more complex issues of structural power imbalances, non-inclusive research training culture, and the very real threat to a candidate’s research degree and career if an HDR student reports improper behaviour, we won’t see effective, preventative change.

SUPRA is calling on the University to mandate supervisory training, and to empower HDR students to know their rights and responsibilities regarding appropriate sexual conduct. The University must ensure there are confidential and regular avenues for HDR students to report harmful behaviours, without fear of repercussions. The University must also establish clear outcomes for such reports. Too many times a student goes through a reporting process, only for no action to be taken, despite the immense stress and often retraumatising effects of the complaints process.

We ask the University to engage in a collaborative process with students. We ask that students with lived experience be able to provide their expertise and guidance into what best practice looks like for students.

If you are a student in need of support, or know a student who needs support, the following services are available:

1800 Respect National Helpline
1800 737 732

Full Stop Australia
1800 385 578

Safer Communities Office (Usyd)
+61 2 8627 6808

02 9351 3715

RPA Hospital Sexual Assault Service
02 9515 9040

Victims Service Access Line
1800 633 063

Men’s Referral Service
1300 766 491