The Federal Government proposes a national student ombudsman with powers to investigate student complaints and resolve disputes with higher education providers on gender violence.
The Ombudsman would also oversight universities on their relations with students across everything from course administration to addressing “unconscious and structural bias” in research staffing funding.
And while the Ombudsman would have no authority in “academic-decision making,” it would “be the primary escalated complaints authority for students in relation to their providers.”
It is part of a draft plan by a working group on university governance chaired by Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly, which was adopted by Education Ministers this week and will be implemented after Ministers receive feedback on the proposals. The new plan follows criticism of universities management of student complaints of gender-based violence from student groups and a Senate Committee.
“Students and staff in higher education deserve to be and feel safe. Over the last several years, evidence has shown that sexual assault and sexual harassment continue to occur in university communities at significant rates,” the draft plan states.
End Rape on Campus Australia, Fair Agenda, the STP Campaign and the National Union of Students helped develop the plan and issued a statement welcoming the Minister’s commitment.
The plan proposes taking overall authority over stopping gender-based violence at a university away from management, stating that governments are accountable for oversighting the plan, which “puts the needs of victim-survivors at the centre.”
The plan sets out seven actions, including, “trauma-informed responsesystems to ensure safety and support for students and staff in response to any type of violence,” and required responses, set out in a national code, with institutions’ annual reports annually tabled in Parliament. A National Code will establish new rules for universities and residences related to evidence-based prevention, management of sexual violence reports, provision of student support and academic adjustments.
The code will also cover student accommodation providers.
But it is the authority of the proposed Ombudsman that would force universities to act. The office would have:
- authority “to consider whether the actions taken by providers are wrong, unjust, unlawful, discriminatory or unfair, and whether they meet the expectations of providers established through regulation”
- “the ability to investigate if a provider is acting unreasonably or there are unreasonable delays in responding to a student’s complaint, or where the provider is otherwise failing to follow its own policies or meet regulatory expectations”
- the power to recommend university managements take specific administrative steps to resolve complaints.
The Ombudsman will also have power to handle student complaints about their providers’ policies and processes, including on student safety, welfare, course administration, HECS administration and “reasonable adjustments for students.”
“The process of shaping this draft Action Plan is the first time in six years of speaking out about this issue – as a victim-survivor, residence leader and campaign advocate – that I have felt heard, “ Camille Schloeffel, Founder of The STOP Campaign said.
“This Action Plan has the potential to make a massive difference for students, and help move us towards a system where victim-survivors can get the support they need to continue their studies, no matter which uni they go to.”
Yesterday Universities Australia announced it supported “the government’s focus on working with universities to address this major societal issue”.
“An Ombudsman with responsibility for student safety has been the subject of consultations with relevant parties and that has been a good process. The sector’s views have been heard.”
However UA added the remit of the role, “seemingly extends beyond the issue of student safety to include HECS administration and course administration.”
“This would constitute a significant reform and detailed examination is appropriate. It would be inefficient to create duplication and overlap with existing regulation and regulatory bodies which deal with these issues”.
UA welcomed the Ministers’ statement that the draft was being released for “further consultation and detailed design work,” however it is hard to see how any of its core recommendations could be walked back.