Jack Buksh, UMSU President Mickhaella Ermita and Srishti Chatterjee, Womens Officers
CW: Sexual Assault and Harassment
Professor Alan Lopez has retained his roles at the University of Melbourne despite an independent workplace investigation finding that he had sexually harassed a young female colleague, in direct contrast to the University’s commitment to ‘zero tolerance.’ This is yet more evidence of the University’s failure to implement recommendations made in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) ‘Change the Course’ report in 2017.
Vice Chancellor Duncan Maskell has said sexual harassment “has no place at our University or in our society”, and has publicly stated a “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment, which gives the University the right to take any “appropriate or necessary lawful action” against those found to have engaged in alleged sexual harassment.
When it comes to light, however, and culpability is determined by an independent investigation, what action is taken? In the case of Professor Lopez it would appear the answer is not much. Despite the Vice Chancellor’s assurances, a recent UMSU report confirmed there is much to be done by the University, which has yet to follow through on any of the key recommendations of the Change the Course report of four years ago to improve safety on campus.
The Change the Course report found that, each year:
26% of students are sexually harassed in a university setting.
6.9% report sexual assault on at least one occasion,
1.6% report sexual assault in a university setting.
These traumatic experiences are all too familiar to students – if it hasn’t happened to them, it has happened to someone they know. Even more alarmingly, given the VC’s words, students are still much less likely to report their experience than young people outside the institution, demonstrating that students have zero confidence in ‘zero tolerance’.
The University has repeatedly fallen short in its obligations to guarantee a safe and inclusive environment for its staff and students. UMSU student representatives, in consultation with the student body, have developed an action plan, with ten key areas highlighted for improvement:
Create a stand-alone sexual assault and harassment policy (including stalking and relationship violence), that is mandated across all UoM departments and affiliates, including residential colleges. This policy should be developed in conjunction with those with lived experience and subject matter experts. It should focus on reporting as a process, rather than a singular decision.
Move all reporting and therapeutic services, including anonymous reporting, away from university administrative premises into a stand-alone ‘Health and Wellbeing Centre’. All reporting and therapeutic services should reflect the diversity of the university community.
Publish clear guidelines, in multiple languages, about reporting, complaint, investigation, and adjudication processes.
Publish clear information about the breadth and diversity of sexual and relationship harms, to promote reporting from as many groups and communities within UoM as possible.
Publish annual figures (appropriately anonymised) for reporting, complaint, and adjudication, to promote transparency in decision-making and development of a genuine ‘zero tolerance’ approach.
Develop an independent investigative process, including appropriately trained staff, available to all departments and affiliates of UoM.
Maintain one investigative process for all complaints, whether student or staff. This should include all graduate students and those on placement with external agencies.
Develop alternative justice and resolution processes, with appropriately trained and supported staff, made available across UoM and affiliates.
Develop appropriate educational resources, alongside students, to define UoM culture and expectations, and assist students in developing positive relationships.
Develop a liaison committee, including representatives from key community agencies and services.
The University is showing its true colours once again – protecting perpetrators at the expense of survivors.
Enough is enough. It is time the University or Melbourne takes responsibility for the sexual assault and harassment that occurs on its watch. This latest finding comes at yet another time when issues of gender equality, sexual harassment and sexual assault in Australia are being met with public demand for action and change to occur. This is not the first time Australia’s number one university has been exposed for its failure to act in the interests of survivors.
The Vice Chancellor has recycled his “zero tolerance” approach to sexual assault and sexual harassment. Yet when sexual assault and sexual harassment occur it looks more like a policy of zero action.
The University has been told what it needs to do. Survivors, and students, should not have to wait a single second longer for this university to act. Demand the University take action now.
The University should be a leader in addressing student mental health. But instead, they’re choosing to change policy that will have a disproportionate impact on students facing mental health issues.
Best practicein the sector isinformed bycomprehensive,evidence-based research in the area.Inits report on Mental Health from June 2020, theProductivity CommissionInquiry Reportindicates that institutional support for tertiary students with mental ill-health needs improvement.The proposed changes to theAssessment and Results Policyrecommended by the President of the Academic Board seem to be in stark contrast to what is considered best practice and UMSU is of the view that they will have the effect ofharming vulnerable students.
While all students will experience detriment as a result of the proposed changes, theywillhaveadisproportionate effect on students living with mental health issues. Thecolddead heart of the proposal is that youwillhavetoguess if you should sit a special exam or not. Theproposedrequirementswill serve tocompound and exacerbatethe mental healthconditionsthatvulnerablestudents are experiencing and will harm students. These changes seem to have been proposedwithout consideringthe extent of thisharm or attempting to mitigate it in any way.
While there are many issues with the proposed changes, there are two worth focussing on as particularlydetrimental for students.
The first is withholding result pending student sitting a special and then special replacing the result regardless. Disproportionate impact on unwell students who are much more likely tolackinsight as to their condition,true capacity, and accurate reflection on their previous performance.
The second is thatunder the change aDeancouldstopa studentfrom sitting a special exambecauseit’s “too late”in semester,providinga LWDinstead, solelybecause itisexpedientfor the Universityto do so.
This does not seem to be a coherent approach underpinned by best practice principles. It also appears to directly conflict with theDraftDisability, Accessibility and Inclusion Policyin both its overall approach, as well as in specific provisions which would be completely incompatible – such as the principles of individual support and disclosure for people with disabilities.
Additionally, theDraft Disability, Accessibility and Inclusion Policyvests final authority to determine academic adjustments with the Academic Registrar, whereas the proposed policychanges indicate thefinal determination of the same matters with the deans of the faculties.This seems to be a further departure from a student-centred approachand is a far cry from any robust mental health strategy or any offer of meaningful support for students.
Today the University of Melbourne proudly announced the release of a report into the impact of mental health conditions on student wellbeing and academic outcomes. Despite the University’s upbeat announcement, this report paints a bleak picture of student mental health and only underscores the need for the University to take urgent action.
Hannah Buchan, President of UMSU, observed “This report was undertaken before the onset of a global pandemic and we know that student mental health is even more precarious than ever. Students have been crying out for support from the University all year – what we need is urgent action based in empathy and compassion. What we see is empty words and self-congratulation.”
Claiming to be “a benchmark study” the report’s major findings simply echo what students and University of Melbourne Student Union have been telling the University for years; that students struggling with the impacts of mental health conditions needs a coordinated and compassionate response.
Hannah Buchan says “This is not a benchmark study – it is final and incontrovertible proof that the University has not acted to address the crisis in student mental health.”
UMSU endorses the report’s recommendations and supports their immediate implantation.
Hannah notes that, “UMSU has been campaigning all year on issues that impact on student mental health. It seems like every week there is some new policy being proposed that stands in stark contrast to the recommendations contained in this report. If the University had implemented the approaches outlined in the report this would have protected students from some of the worst impacts of the pandemic.”
“It is a sad reflection of the University’s priorities that in its announcement it fails to commit to adopting the recommendations contained in this report. If the University is unwilling to commit to a comprehensive and holistic approach to supporting students in the midst of a pandemic – students rightly ask if not now, when?” concluded Hannah Buchan.
Further media about UMSU mental health and student well-being support campaigning can be found at the following links:
On 25 September we published a video to let you know about a new policy that the University is seeking to introduce which will effectively punish students who are struggling with mental health issues, rather than provide them with additional support.
Today UMSU submitted its response for consultation into the University’s proposed ‘Student Participation in Study Policy’, which outlines the areas of significant concern with the policy alongside its recommendations to address issues of student participation in a supportive and holistic framework.
In short, UMSU is recommending the following:
The proposed policy is not implemented, as it would in practice act against its purpose to support students who are struggling as a result of poor mental health.
The University undertake a trauma informed and student centric analysis of the University’s current student facing policies with a view to ensuring positive mental health outcomes for students.
The University develop a Mental Health Framework to deliver proactive and comprehensive support to improve the mental health and wellbeing of students.
The University commit to enhanced consultation with students about academic and other study related adjustments to reach a mutually beneficial outcome, where the adjustments are reasonable and are tailored to the particular needs of the student.
The University provide improved education for academic staff on how to balance the competing priorities of academic requirements and supporting students in line with equity principles.
Take a read of the submission on our website here.
Hannah Buchan, President Jack Buksh, General Secretary
Now, more than ever, the University needs to be providing real support to students who are struggling with mental health. Instead, the University is proposing a policy that does the exact opposite.
This proposed policy allows University staff to identify students demonstrating behaviours that might be linked to mental health issues and refer them to Orwellian “Student Participation in Study Committees”. These committees can recommend to a Dean that a student’s enrolment can be terminated or suspended. The University staff on these committees will not be required to have any training or demonstrated knowledge about the impacts that mental health issues have on students that would, at a minimum, qualify them to make these kinds of decisions.
We simply cannot understand why the University is creating a system that will have the inevitable effect of punishing those who struggle with their mental health.
At UMSU’s most recent students’ council a motion was passed condemning the LGBTQIA+ Conversion Movement. The motion and the text of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts Survivor statement is below:
Conversion practices, sometimes referred to as “reparative therapy,” is any of several dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Conversion therapists use a variety of shaming, emotionally traumatic or physically painful stimuli to make their victims associate those stimuli with their LGBTQ identities.
Despite recent attempts to ban conversion practices (notably in Queensland and Victoria), conversion practices are not receding, rather they are entering the mainstream in particular churches. At least 10 organisations in Australia and New Zealand currently advertise conversion therapy. Instead of stamping out conversion practices, criminalisation has only pushed it underground.
To actually tackle conversion practices, survivors’ voices need to be platformed.
“The ex-gay/ex-trans movement is grounded in an ideology – it is not just a type of therapy that can be banned. While affirming faith leaders are needed to help drive change from within this movement, lawmakers and legal advocates who wish to curtail the movement must pursue strategies that seek to identify and counteract the influence of this ideology in the education and training, community, charity, non-profit and media spheres.”
Many queer students at the University of Melbourne are survivors of conversion practices, or are still subject to them. Not only should UMSU provide more support to these students, but UMSU also must publicly condemn a practice that causes years of lasting harm.
UMSU condemns any sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts to queer students, and commits to offering material solidarity and support to any survivor who should request it.
UMSU has affirmed the SOGICE survivor statement. The SOGICE survivor statement can be found here.
We are appalled by the continuing jobs cuts across Victorian public universities.
How can universities maintain the quality of education with these levels of cuts? In an already difficult time for staff and students, these cuts are demoralising and a huge blow to our teachers. Teaching conditions are student learning conditions – we know that these cuts will have a direct impact on students.
As members of the Academic Board, UMSU President Hannah Buchan and Education Officer Georgia Walton Briggs signed this letter to the University executive from senior academics and academic board members, calling on the University to stop all staff cuts and restructuring as part of their “pandemic reset program” while the financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis remains unclear. 450 jobs cuts is too many, any jobs cuts is too many. We will continue to fight alongside staff against these cuts.
Today UMSU submitted a report to the University outlining its proposed amendments to the Special Consideration policy, which the University is seeking to make changes to that would ultimately disadvantage students to at a time when they’re needing it the most. You can read more about those changes here.
UMSU’s response to the proposed policy changes has been driven by feedback submitted by you in the wellbeing form that was launched last week, from the data we have collected from students who use our Advocacy Service, and from feedback gathered from students in August last year — the first time we fought (successfully) against these changes.
Aria Sunga and Naomi Smith, Officer Bearers UMSU Women’s Department
CW: Sexual Assault and Harassment
The UMSU Womenʻs Department is disgusted to hear of the sexual harassment committed by Peter Rathjen, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide. We condemn the University of Melbourne’s complicity in allowing a perpetrator of sexual harm to continue work in the University sector.
Yesterday, the South Australian Independent Commision Against Corruption (ICAC) announced that it found that Professor Peter Rathjen, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, had committed serious misconduct by sexually harassing two colleagues in 2019. An ABC investigation has found that a former employer of the Rahtjen, the University of Melbourne, was aware of previous cases where Rathjen had harassed people and yet they failed to inform the University of Adelaide.
Professor Rathjen was employed at the University of Melbourne from 2006 to 2011. And it was during this time that a former student alleged he committed serious sexual misconduct while he was the Dean of Science between 2006 to 2008.
The student reported this case to the University of Melbourne in May of 2018 and the University upheld the misconduct complaint. Despite upholding the misconduct complaint the University failed to refer the new findings to the University of Adelaide – where Professor Rathjen was Vice-Chancellor. Their failure to refer to these findings enabled Rathjen to continue to offend at another University campus.
This is not the first case that has been in the media this year where the University reveals its negligence and complicitness in its responses to cases of sexual assault and harassment. It is time the University or Melbourne owned up and took responsibility for sexual assault and a harassment that occurs within the University community. The University again is showing its true colours where it upholds perpetrators in power rather than survivors. We are deeply concerned with the clearly consistent amateur approach that the University takes with responding to sexual assault and harassment. The University must do better.
UMSU also unequivocally stands with survivors – we hear you, we believe you, and we support you.
We call on the University to:
To adequately respond to the allegations that they failed to inform the University of Adelaide of the misconduct findings against Rathjen.
To release appropriately anonymised data on the outcomes of their sexual harassment misconduct cases.
To appoint external investigators, with appropriate sexual assault and harassment sensitivity training, for all sexual assault and harassment misconduct cases.
To increase funding and resources to the Safer Community program and ensure all itʻs processes are independent from the University.
In the coming days we will be penning an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maksell, asking him to respond to our demands, and also creating a petition to collect student signatures in support of this letter. We will not rest until the University takes responsibility for their complicity and makes substantial institutional changes.
Hannah Buchan, President Jack Buksh, General Secretary
Since the start of Semester 2 we have been told by the University that it won’t be making any more money available to students experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. We saw that they waited until mid-August to let students know that they had decided to extend the WAM amnesty but, at the same time, they had asked faculties and graduate schools to make decisions about which subjects should be included by 31 July. This delay caused untold stress and anxiety for students.
Recently, they announced plans to cut 450 jobs and this will inevitably have an impact on the level and quality of support available for students, and now on top of this, they’re introducing changes to the Special Consideration policy at a time when we need it most. You can read more about these changeshere.
Over the past five months UMSU has worked with you as a student body to make your voices heard by the University. We’ve delivered petitions, conducted research and submitted reports, and campaigned online, over Zoom meetings and phone calls, and in inboxes and comments on social media. This campaigning has delivered results for students like the introduction of the Emergency Support Fund in Semester 1 and the changes to WAM calculations and a number of other improvements for students.
What we see from this is that the University will not take significant actions to support students unless it is backed into a corner by students. If students are at the heart of everything the University does, then students should feel like this is true.
We know it’s tiresome, but we need your help again. We need you to tell ushow the University’s actions are affecting your wellbeing — whether that’s related to the pandemic or not. Use the form below to provide anonymous feedback on how the University actions and decisions have affected you. This might be about how you will be impacted by changes to Special Consideration, the University’s approach to the Emergency Support Fund, your experience of remote learning or just how you feel you have been supported by the University during the pandemic.
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