A milestone review into the culture of notorious Sydney University residential colleges has found men and women have markedly different experiences as student residents.
Former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, who led the report, found most students felt safe and welcome at college.
But women were less likely to feel included or safe, in part due to a “pack mentality” of hyper-masculinity compounded by an excessive drinking culture.
“Our evidence found that for women in particular, the college experience can be quite different to that of their male peers,” Ms Broderick said, launching the report on Wednesday.
Having more women in college leadership roles, zero tolerance of sexual misconduct and less alcohol at college events were among the report’s 23 recommendations.
A number of allegations of sexual assaults at the scandal-plagued colleges sparked the report’s commissioning last May by the University and five of the colleges – Sancta Sophia, St Andrew’s, St John’s, Wesley and Women’s.
More women experienced exclusion or isolation, pressure to ‘hook up’ or drink alcohol, sexual harassment and assault. The report found very few women had been elected to senior roles at the co-educational colleges.
One in four women, compared to 6 per cent of men, reported being sexually harassed at college.
Four per cent of all students reported experiencing actual or attempted sexual assault at college. Ninety one per cent of them were women, and men were the alleged perpetrators 95 per cent of the time.
The figures were more extreme at St Andrew’s and the Women’s College, where almost one-third of women said they’d been sexually harassed. Eight per cent had experienced actual or attempted assault.
Sexual misconduct at the university’s colleges appeared to be intensified by a drinking culture.
Almost half of all residents (49%) said they drank to socialise or make friends, while 13 per cent of residents reported being pressured to drink.
“Drinking behaviours of boys getting rough – pressure to have sex if boys are really drunk,” one student claimed in the review.
Others reported being groped, disrespected or otherwise intimidated by drunken men “wanting to cause trouble”.
The report said there had been improvements to end practices like hazing rituals, but 19 per cent of residents still reported being bullied, intimidated or humiliated.
College reports and recommendations
Researchers met with 632 current and former students over 18 months, while more than 1000 residents responded to a survey questionnaire for the independent review.
Ms Broderick made 23 recommendations regarding student leadership structures, O Week events and policies, the supply and demand of alcohol, safety and wellbeing, disclosure and reporting.
Four of the five colleges have committed to implementing all recommendations within two years.
Individual reports for the five colleges involved were also released.
A report into St Paul’s will be released in June next year after the college – the oldest in Australia – avoided joining the independent review until the eleventh hour. St Paul’s had resisted on the basis it was conducting an in-house review, but conceded to joining after repeated scandals.
Response from advocates
Sydney University co-Women’s Officer Imogen Grant said it was a “milestone event” that colleges had signed up to the recommendations, but said it remained to be seen how effectively they’ll be implemented.
“It is really a positive step forward for student safety on campus,” Ms Grant told The New Daily.
She was critical of college heads who she said “have been really quick to congratulate themselves for their bravery” in signing up to the review.
“In reality, there was a real hostility from the college councils and the college student body towards the review when it was first proposed.”
Ms Grant was disappointed there was no recommendation that colleges lose some autonomy from the university, which she said encouraged a culture of “militant entitlement”.
“Colleges have proven themselves there needs to be reform and self-management doesn’t work.”
End Rape on Campus ambassador Nina Funnell said she felt the report was “sanitised” and lacked some detail.
“In saying that, I think the recommendations are quite strong and it’s encouraging they’re going to be repeating the process in three years time,” she told The New Daily.
“Cultural reform does not happen overnight, it takes time and you need to have not just institutional willingness, you also need to have incredibly strong and committed leadership.”
Ms Funnell said she expected some residents who feel positive might go on to think of their college experiences as “f––ed” with hindsight.
She noted students had been protesting rape and sexual assault within the university since the 1970s.
“While we welcome this report, it is significantly overdue and the colleges have known for quite some time that they have problems.”
University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence welcomed the report and said some work had already begun to improve college culture.