Universities called to account for mismanaging gender-based violence

The Federal Government has quietly set out another major extension of its authority over higher education providers.

The Department of Education has released an issues paper for a national higher education code to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. That this is needed is no credit to universities, their lobbies or TEQSA, all of which could have codified rigorous “prevent and respond” policies to change campus cultures.

Lack of success and perceived lack of action in addressing the issues has strengthened the Government’s arm, with the issues paper setting out standards for a “potential code,” including:

  • Accountable governance and leadership. “unless governance bodies hold and take responsibility for a whole-of-organisation approach, measures to address gender-based violence will be inadequately resourced and remain siloed from other efforts to improve safety and wellbeing”
  • Organisational policies and practice: “they must acknowledge requirements for different settings such as on-line and work-based learning environments, and for different staff and student groups.”
  • Organisational cultures addressing: “the drivers of gender-based violence and prioritises the safety of victim-survivors”
  • Trauma-informed, safety first procedures: “protecting the safety of the victim-survivor and observing procedural fairness are not mutually exclusive – and if there is a conflict between the two, the safety of the victim-survivor must be prioritised” 
  • A focus on safety: “providers must move away from using a disciplinary lens to using a safety lens when considering allegations of gender-based violence.”
  • Holding perpetrators to account: non-disclosure agreements only when “requested by the victim-survivor.” 

The Code will also apply to campus residences. “there are currently no national requirements that all student accommodation providers must meet regarding student safety and wellbeing,” the paper states.

The DoE announces it will include “a dedicated unit” which “will take an outcomes and risk-based approach to monitoring, assessment and enforcement for compliance when a serious issue is identified.”

And it will not muck about, specifying a range of responses: from written warnings to injunctions, and lest anybody think it is bluffing, “the Department proposes compliance with the national code would become a condition of approval under the Higher Education Support Act.” Plus, the Department “could take compliance action” against institutions that do not take actions recommended by the Student Ombudsman.

While the DoE unit will not take on individual complaints from staff or students, this approach represents a major extension of government oversight of HE, covering staff as well as students – and the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, which represents most universities, gets it.

AHEIA has just announced a “university conduct management and response taskforce,” to “promote transparency, accountability, and effective responses to misconduct.” Its’ first task is changing the way universities use non-disclosure agreements in sexual assault and related cases, building on a Canadian model that reduces the stress on victims and stops the use of non-disclosure agreements that protect predators’ reputations. With the National Code coming, it is too-little, too-late.



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