Feminist Educators Against Sexism

Staff sexual misconduct in universities: using the AHRC report to push the agenda forward?

Anna Bull of the 1752 Group

The recent publication of the Australian Human Rights Commission report on sexual harassment in Australian universities has met with a muted reaction. Following the first few days’ media coverage, the story appears to have died down, both on campus and off it. And yet, despite the many shortcomings of the report (which I have written about here), this is a crucial time to push universities towards committing more resources, more transparency and accountability, and implementing better policies and processes for dealing with staff sexual harassment in universities.

During my visiting fellowship at Monash University over the last month I have had many conversations with people about sexual harassment and misconduct, thanks to my role as a co-founder of The 1752 Group. The 1752 Group, founded in 2016, works in the UK to address staff sexual misconduct in higher education. Our activism builds on the work at Goldsmiths, University of London by 1752 Group co-founder Tiffany Page and others. In the UK, there has been no comparable data-gathering exercise to the AHRC report, but a series of scandals – including Professor Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths in protest at their failure to deal with staff sexual harassment – has led to some recognition within the sector that staff sexual harassment, as well as student sexual harassment, needs to be addressed.

As a result, our work has gained traction much more quickly than we had expected. We are working with the National Union of Students to roll out a national survey specifically designed to capture the particular forms of misconduct through which staff can abuse their position of power over students. We are also in discussions with Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Union about ways to take this issue forward, as well as working with individual institutions such as the University of Portsmouth.

In some ways Australia is ahead of the UK on these issues, although a huge amount of sector-wide change is still required in both countries. For example, one university has implemented a system of third party reporting, whereby staff or students can report concerns about staff sexual harassment to HR, who will then carry out an investigation. This is a hugely important step, as the block to investigating serial perpetrators is often the (very understandable) reluctance of students to make a formal complaint against a staff member who may have substantial power over their career. However, as well as these institutional processes, cultural change is also needed. Students need staff members to stand up publicly and voice their commitment to supporting students around this, and to create spaces to discuss this issue.

I co-organised such a discussion at the University of Melbourne last week, together with the Media and Communications Women’s Network at the University of Melbourne. This event opened up a space for a helpful and interesting discussion with people from different levels across the university. Another way to do open up this issue is through performance; playwright Phil Thomas has written an open-access short play about staff sexual harassment which can be used as a starting point for discussions (and for other activism ideas, see my blog post here). I know that as feminist academics, it often feels like our work is overwhelming and I, for one, struggle to maintain the energy required to keep doing it. But even running an hour’s discussion can be enough to draw people out of the woodwork and start to build a network. Once we start talking, I find that there are usually people who want to organise around this issue – but the crucial thing is opening up the space to allow this to happen. The AHRC report has created a framework whereby universities need to be responsive to the voices of their students and staff – but they will only listen to us when we come together and make our demands collectively. Now is the time to push at the door and see whether it really is opening up, just a little bit.

Dr Anna Bull is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth, and co-founder of The 1752 Group, a UK-based lobby and research organisation tackling staff sexual misconduct in higher education.