Australia: “distressing” levels of student sexual assault and harassment

Published 30/03/2022

The higher education sector in Australia is in dismay as the results of the 2021 National Student Safety Survey have revealed some shocking facts.

The nationwide survey of university students has revealed that one in 20 students have been sexually assaulted and one in six sexually harassed since starting university. Female and gender-diverse students have been disproportionately impacted, with an overwhelming majority of perpetrators being male.

Commissioned by the sector peak body, Universities Australia and was carried out by the Social Research Centre towards late 2021, the survey revealed that one in two students who faced sexual assault and/or sexual harassment, knew nothing or very little about the formal reporting processes.

Only one in 20 of those students who were assaulted made a formal complaint and only one in 30 of those who faced sexual harassment, made a formal complaint. One in four of those who faced sexual assault sought support or assistance while only one in six of those who faced sexual harassment did so.

However, the survey revealed that international students and those who did not speak English as their preferred language at home, were less likely to have been sexually assaulted and sexually harassed.

Some 1.7% of international students had been sexually assaulted in a university context since starting university, in contrast to 5.2% of domestic students.

For university students who speak a language other than English at home, 1.8% had been sexually assaulted, compared to 5.6% of university students who primarily speak English at home.

Among international students, 47.1% were likely to have been sexually harassed, in comparison to 62.3% of their domestic counterparts, by a student from their university.

Also, 50.4% international students who speak a language other than English at home, were likely to have been sexually harassed by a student from their university, in comparison to 62.7% of the domestic students.

That said, the survey has revealed that international students are also less likely to report incidents than their domestic counterparts.

The results of the survey were “distressing, disappointing and confronting”, said John Dewar, Universities Australia chair, in his response to the survey results.

“As a nation, this cannot be tolerated, and as a sector, we will continue to be part of the solution”

“The survey results are part of a growing body of evidence in Australia which shows that sexual harassment and sexual assault are pervasive in all corners of our society. As a nation, this cannot be tolerated, and as a sector, we will continue to be part of the solution,” Dewar emphasised.

A total of 43,819 students participated in the survey and 1,835 sharing their own lived experience and personal encounters.

In a statement Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination commissioner, said that the report “makes it clear that sexual harassment and sexual assault remain a serious problem within Australian universities”.

“Sexual harassment and sexual assault remain far too prevalent in the Australian community. Women, young people and intersectional groups face unacceptably higher risk of this conduct at home, at work, online and in education, including in universities,” Jenkins noted.

She said that the “community momentum” against sexual assault and sexual harassment had been growing since 2017 and that the country had seen “significant work” in the form of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work National Inquiry (2020) and Set the Standard, Review of Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces (2021) reports.

In 2017, Change the Course Report was published, which was a national report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian Universities. The Australian Human Rights Commission had drafted the report, upon being engaged for the task by Australia’s university sector in 2016.

Although the 2016 and the 2021 reports on sexual assault and sexual harassment might draw comparisons, Jenkins cautioned against directly comparing the figures between the two, as there were “methodological changes” made in the NSSS survey. She called this inability to do data comparisons between the NSSS and the Change the Course surveys, a “missed opportunity”.

She said that, however, since 2017, Australian universities were making concerted efforts towards closing the gap against sexual assault and sexual harassment, after confronting revelations came through in that year’s report.

She encouraged “universities to continue to unite in industry action, recognising their common drivers of sexual harassment and assault, sharing learnings, ensuring consistency in leadership and commitment, and maximising prevention.”

“All students deserve a safe and respectful education”

“All students deserve a safe and respectful education, and failure to provide this reflects badly on all of us,” Jenkins said.

The Australian public broadcaster, ABC News has released a compilation of the results from the 39 universities that participated in the NSSS.

The Australian National University in the nation’s capital, Canberra, has drawn severe criticism after finding that 12.3% respondents from ANU said they had been sexually assaulted since they started university, second only to the Bond University and way beyond the national average.

A further 26.1% said they had faced sexual harassment since they started university, the highest out of all participating universities.

“Today’s results are difficult for our community. And my thoughts are with victim-survivors, their loved ones and the dedicated professionals and advocates who work so hard to support them,” said Brian Schmidt, ANU’s vice-chancellor.

The ANU said that although the rates of sexual assault and harassment reported from its campus were much higher than the national average, it was also the case that due to a greater awareness amongst students on where to report incidents and seek help, the ANU recorded higher than national average numbers of the number of complaints made and support sought by students.

“But while these results are confronting, they are the only way we can understand the scale of the challenge we continue to face and how we can best target our action to keep our community safe,” he said.

“ANU is listening and acting, and we are making major new investments”, he said, in order to stop and deal with the unacceptable conduct.

“Our new $3.3-million-a-year Student Safety and Wellbeing Plan will deliver significant new resources for staffing in ANU residences, recruiting new case managers, making consent training a mandatory part of students’ enrolment and further embedding a zero-tolerance approach in ANU culture, including policies, language, training and disciplinary procedures,” he said, while highlighting a range of initiatives that the university was taking.

If you need support, help is available.


Phone and online counselling for people impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse, available 24/7.

1800 737 732


Phone and online confidential crisis support, available 24/7.

13 11 14

University safety services

Find support and safety services at your university.


Phone and online support and referral service for LGBTIQ+ people, available 3pm to midnight in your time zone.

1800 184 527

MensLine Australia

Phone and online counselling service for men, available 24/7.

1300 78 99 78

Beyond Blue

Phone and online mental health counselling and advice, available 24/7.

1300 22 4636

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