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Sexual assault in universities

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) May 26, 2021: (12:00)

Universities are a hot topic today.

My question is to the Minister for Higher Education, Ms Tierney. It follows journalist Richard Ferguson’s front-page story in the Weekend Australian on 21 May highlighting multiple very serious failures in the University of Queensland’s responses to complaints from students about incidents of stalking and sexual assault committed by someone employed by the university.

Minister, in the wake of these very disturbing revelations, have you asked or would you ask for any form of audit or even an updated assessment of the robustness of the current structures and processes for the reporting and investigation of stalking and sexual misconduct allegations within Victorian universities?

Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (12:01): 

Obviously universities do have their own processes. Of course that does not stop anyone from also reporting incidents to police. There are also support services on campuses to provide counselling and other support mechanisms to victims.

It does not matter whether you are male, female or whatever, the fact of the matter is that there are supports there. But, Ms Maxwell, I do thank you for this question, because it has raised a discussion particularly in my office about whether there is suitable regulation.

I can inform you that the University of Melbourne is undertaking a study at the moment and has written to all staff and students asking for their input. It is my intention once I receive that report to then have a discussion with the vice-chancellors at the vice-chancellors forum about what else might need to be done in this area, so it is a very active topic. It is active in the media, but it is very active in terms of the discussions that are happening with key stakeholders in the sector.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:03):

Thank you, Minister.

Minister, there has been a considerable amount of anger about the University of Melbourne’s response to recent incidents of sexual assault and harassment. These include its handling of the allegations of serious sexual misconduct upheld in 2019 against its former dean of science Peter Rathjen, who I have mentioned previously in this place. Information about Rathjen’s offending was allegedly not even passed on to the University of Adelaide, where he was vice-chancellor before later leaving the position in disgrace following further sexual misconduct.

So I ask: during this term of Parliament has the Victorian government asked the University of Melbourne to improve its handling of sexual misconduct complaints, including by directing it to comprehensively and publicly respond to the allegations that it failed to disclose the findings against Rathjen to the University of Adelaide?

Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (12:03):

Obviously the safety of students is absolutely paramount, whether they be on university councils, in schools, at TAFEs, wherever—absolutely.

I do have a great personal interest in this area, Ms Maxwell, as you might know, but the fact of the matter is that in terms of my powers, they do not go to operational matters as such. But that is why I am taking a particularly keen interest in the work that the University of Melbourne is undertaking at the moment, and as I said, I look forward to having a wider discussion with the university community about what else can be done and what things might be able to be tightened so that the things that have happened in Queensland and elsewhere cannot happen again.