Student safety: the roles and responsibilities of universities

On 23 March 2022, the Social Research Centre (SRC) of the Australian National University released the results of the 2021 National Student Safety Survey (NSSS). Funded by Universities Australia (UA) through its Respect. Now. Always. initiative, the NSSS examines the prevalence and experiences of sexual assault and harassment among university students in a university context. This includes off-campus experiences where university students or staff are present, and university organised or supported places and events.

This FlagPost provides a brief overview of NSSS results and responses, and details the student safety responsibilities of universities under current legislation.

NSSS findings

Comprising 2 reports based on a quantitative survey of 43,819 students (p. 13) and qualitative responses to open-ended questions from 1,835 current and former students (p. 6), the NSSS results reveal 16.1% of participating students had been sexually harassed, and 4.5% had been sexually assaulted, since starting university (pp. 1–6). First Nations students, students with disability, gender diverse students, and young women, were more likely to experience harassment and/or assault than others (pp. 17–18 and 32–33). Detrimental effects from these experiences include impacts on mental health, university attendance and performance, participation in university life, and students’ relationships (p. 27).  

The NSSS is a follow-up to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) Change the Course: National report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities, published in 2017. However, the SRC cautions (pp. 4–5) that prevalence rates are not comparable between the 2 surveys due to changes in methodology and high rates of online study during the 2021 survey period as a result of COVID-19. The 2021 survey found slightly lower prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the 12 months preceding the survey compared with the AHRC survey in the 2016 calendar year, but the SRC does not conclude that this is evidence of improvement.

How have universities responded to the NSSS?

In a sector-wide response to the NSSS results, UA Chair Professor John Dewar committed to building on the university-led work which had commenced in the wake of the AHRC report, and stated:

To every single University student who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault, or has a friend, family member or loved one who has – I am sorry. I am sorry for what you endured. I am sorry for how that may have affected your relationships, your mental health, your studies and your life.

According to the AHRC’s audit of university responses to its 2017 report, university-led work began with establishing advisory bodies and working groups, introducing student education and training in relation to sexual assault, sexual harassment and respectful relationships, and increasing the availability and visibility of support services, among other actions.

In 2019, the national higher education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), published a review of the higher education sector’s response to sexual assault, based on providers’ self-reported actions, and found that significant work was being undertaken, and relevant standards being effectively upheld.

However, in light of the NSSS results, concerns have been raised that university actions so far have not been sufficiently evidence based.

What does the Australian Government require universities to do?

The Australian Government imposes student safety requirements via TEQSA, under the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011 (TEQSA Act) and the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act). As the higher education regulator, TEQSA is responsible for provider registration, course accreditation, and assessment of providers’ compliance with their responsibilities under the TEQSA Act and ESOS Act. 

The TEQSA Act requires all providers of higher education in Australia to meet certain conditions of registration, including (among a wide range of other requirements) learning environment standards set out in the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2021. These are the minimum acceptable requirements for higher education provision in Australia.

Under the Threshold Standards, universities are required to promote and foster ‘a safe environment’ (2.3.4) and provide current and prospective students with access to ‘mechanisms that are capable of resolving grievances about any aspect of their experience with the higher education provider, its agents or related parties’ (2.4.1).

The ESOS Act also imposes additional responsibilities on Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (CRICOS) providers (including all universities) in relation to their duties to overseas students. Most relevantly, Standard 6 of the National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2018 (National Code) requires providers to take all reasonable steps to provide a safe environment on campus. It also requires providers to support overseas students in their adjustment to study and life in Australia, including by providing information about support services, legal services, emergency and health services, and complaints and appeals processes. 

Accountability mechanisms

While TEQSA prioritises voluntary provider compliance and guidance (including in relation to sector-wide issues such as sexual assault and harassment), its enforcement powers also include imposing registration conditions or revoking a provider’s registration for failing to meet the Threshold Standards or the National Code.

However, TEQSA does not investigate incidences of sexual assault or harassment itself, or make findings about the merits of complaints about these matters. The complaint process allows students to raise matters relevant to TEQSA’s regulatory responsibilities. This includes whether a provider’s handling of sexual assault or harassment complaints meets regulatory requirements. Thirty-one such complaints were received in the year to April 2022 (p. 69), with 6 subject to ongoing monitoring and 3 still open for assessment.

In light of the NSSS results, TEQSA is considering (p. 72) whether the current approach is adequate. Students have also questioned the continued viability of current arrangements. For example, a student-led panel about the results of the NSSS convened by the Australian Human Rights Institute of UNSW and the AHRC raised external accountability mechanisms as a possible next step. The next government may face questions about how to properly resource ongoing efforts, should TEQSA be tasked with pursuing such an initiative.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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