News National Universities Australia accused of avoiding sexual violence crisis in funding ‘plea for policymakers’

Universities Australia accused of avoiding sexual violence crisis in funding ‘plea for policymakers’

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The Red Zone report detailed illegal hazing rituals and sexual violence at university colleges. Photo: Getty
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Universities Australia has been accused of neglecting sexual violence at its annual national conference, just days after the crisis was revealed in an explosive 200-page report.

Shocking hazing rituals and toxic misogyny at university colleges was documented in The Red Zone report on Monday.

But a joint collective of advocacy and student groups claims it has been left off the agenda of a national higher education conference this week.

“I’d like to say that I’m surprised,” Sharna Bremner, Director of End Rape on Campus Australia (EROC), said on Tuesday.

“But universities have proven time and time again that most of them aren’t taking this issue seriously enough.”

The conference program includes breakout sessions on 20 different topics, none of which include sexual violence, according to a joint statement from the groups.

UA chief executive Belinda Robinson disputed the claim.

“This week’s conference covers a broad range of topics including working with students on safety and welfare,” she told The New Daily in a statement on Tuesday.

“As NUS [National Union of Students] and EROC are aware from our discussions with them, reflecting its importance, the issue of how to prevent and address sexual assault and sexual harassment in student communities deserves – and has – its own substantial and ongoing program of work.”

It comes before Margaret Gardner, chair of UA, makes a “plea for policymakers” to end the university funding freeze in her address to the National Press Club on Wednesday, citing new figures on enrolments.

There has been a 55 per cent increase in the number of students from the poorest fifth of households since placements were uncapped in 2009. There are 48 per cent more regional and rural students, 89 per cent more Indigenous students, and 109 per cent more students with a disability.

“Such universal access is the foundation of hope and opportunity for anyone who doesn’t start out in life with every advantage,” Professor Gardner will argue, according to a copy of her speech provided to The New Daily.

She will claim the funding freeze, which halts funds for university teaching at last year’s levels, amounts to “a cap on opportunity for all Australians” by pulling $2.2 billion of university funding.

“Keeping open these doors of opportunity is not only important to all Australians, or to universities and the communities that we serve.”

Universities are a “vehicle for social cohesion” that benefit governments and business alike, Professor Gardner will argue.

“This is all the more reason why – having opened the doors of opportunity – our nation cannot afford socially or economically, to slam them shut once more.

“We should close gaps – not widen them. So my message today is a plea for policymakers.

“Don’t lock the door of opportunity … End this university funding freeze. And restore our nation’s investment in Australian students and Australia’s future.”

Education Minister Simon Birmingham said commonwealth funding had grown at twice the rate of the economy. He noted universities were running at a $1.6 billion surplus, and spending big on marketing and advertising.

“There is no reason that universities could not tap into that funding and grow enrolments in courses they see as having strong employment outcomes,” Senator Birmingham said.

“Universities should be asking themselves what their spending priorities are if not to use the record funding we’ve been providing to best support their students.”

The Red Zone, released on Monday, called for a national taskforce and for hazing to be criminalised on a state level.

The report also called for a coronial inquest into the suicide of St Paul’s resident Stuart Kelly, the brother of one-punch assault victim Thomas Kelly.

Ms Robinson said UA funded almost $1 million for the Australian Human Rights Commission’s independent survey of students last year.

“The Commission has on its website a progress update which runs to 47 pages and details more than 800 actions that Australian universities have taken since they received the survey results and recommendations.”

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