Ministerial Statements – Universities: Physical and Sexual Harassment and Violence

Mr CLARE (BlaxlandMinister for Education) (09:01): The Australian Universities Accord is the biggest and broadest review of higher education in this country in 15 years, and the accord panel is an extraordinary team of experts from across education, business and public policy and across the political divide, led by an exceptional leader in higher education, Professor Mary O’Kane AC.

Last month I released their interim report and announced that the government would be implementing each of their five priority recommendations. Last week I introduced a bill addressing two of those: supporting our students by abolishing the 50 per cent pass rule, which unfairly affected students from poor backgrounds, and introducing stronger support requirements in its place; and ensuring that all Indigenous students, wherever they live in Australia, can access a Commonwealth supported place and a HELP loan if they meet the entry requirements. Those measures are before the House, and I look forward to their debate this week.

The other three priorities in the interim report which the government is implementing are:

1. increasing the number of regional university hubs and bringing them to the outer suburbs. The government is doubling the number of university hubs, from 34 to 68—20 more for the regions and 14 in the outer suburbs;

2. extending the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and 2025. The government has confirmed that this will be done; and

3. working with the states and territories on improving university governance.

I’d like to update the House on the progress of this priority recommendation. The accord team want us to look at three specific governance issues:

1. ensuring that universities are good employers;

2. ensuring that university governing policies have the right expertise; and

3. critically, making sure that universities are safe for students and staff.

As I said in my second reading speech last week, the government is establishing a working group led by my department and comprised of representatives from each state and territory. Its job is to advise me and other responsible ministers across the country on the immediate actions we should take to improve university governance.

In my speech, I also indicated that the working group would include an expert on the prevention of and response to sexual assault and harassment. Today I am pleased to update the House that that expert is Ms Patty Kinnersly. Ms Kinnersly is the Chief Executive Officer of Our Watch, a national leader in the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia. She is an expert in governance, health and prevention issues.

Ms Kinnersly currently serves as a member of the National Plan Advisory Group, which informed the development of the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children, and she is a former director of the Australian Women’s Health Network national board. She also chairs the National Respectful Relationships Education Expert Working Group.

I have asked Ms Kinnersly to join and work with this working group to advise on the prevention of and the response to sexual assault and sexual harassment on our university campuses. The first meeting of the working group is scheduled for next week. The working group will consult with groups like STOP, End Rape on Campus and Fair Agenda as part of this work.

We have to get this right. Safety on campus has been talked about for long enough. The statistics are shocking. One in 20 students reported having been sexually assaulted since starting university, according to the 2021 National Student Safety Survey, and one in six reported being sexually harassed. I have met with the remarkable young women from the STOP campaign and from End Rape on Campus and listened to their stories—stories not only of what happened to their fellow students, but of a confused and inadequate response process within our universities, of inconsistent complaint processes, a lack of materials on the right to complain, a lack of education campaigns on consent and a lack of feedback when a complaint has been made. Their message is the same. We have to act.

We need concrete plans for how to address campus safety, and that’s what this working group will advise on. This is not about more research or more surveys. This is about what will make a difference on campuses. It needs the input and the action of federal, state and territory governments. That’s why the working group draws in members from each.

Universities need to be doing more here. I want to work with universities on this. Universities have responsibilities to their staff and to their students which must be met. The accord panel’s interim report makes it clear that more and more jobs in the future will require a university qualification. That means more students at our universities getting the quality education that they deserve and building the skills that our country is going to need. We need to sure that they are safe—from lecture theatres to student accommodation and residential colleges, across campuses, across the country.

I also want to pay tribute to my friend and colleague the Minister for Social Services, who spoke in this chamber last week on the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children. I want universities, students and staff to know that the government is serious about this. I want to thank Patty Kinnersly for agreeing to contribute her expertise and effort to this important work.