Campus

FOI(LED) Again

16 October 2017

End Rape on Campus (EROC) ambassador Nina Funnell has revealed the details of a rejected Freedom of Information (FOI) request she conducted on the University of Melbourne late last year.

Funnell partnered with Channel 7’s FOI Editor Alison Sandy to conduct what she called “the largest ever FOI investigation in Australian history,” for Sunday Night. The FOI targeted 39 Australian universities, asking them to make their sexual assault complaint data public.

“We didn’t want to just know how many complaints there had been,” Funnell told Farrago.

“We also specifically wanted to know how many of those were student-on-student assaults versus staff-on-student assaults. We also asked for a breakdown around things … like up-skirting or lewd, inappropriate, non-consensual filming.”

Funnell revealed that by the time the Sunday Night segment aired in October 2016, 27 universities had complied with the FOI, providing their sexual assault complaint data for the investigation.

The University of Melbourne was not one of those.

“The University of Melbourne refused to comply with the FOI, but did provide some very, very basic summary statistics,” Funnell said.

According to Funnell, an email from the University to Alison Sandy reads, “Since 2014, the University Security and Transport Division has received 32 reports of harassment, indecent assault, stalking or indecent exposure … Like many other large communities, the underreporting of incidents likely remains an issue … [The University] acknowledges there is more to be done to ensure the institution and the entire sector continues to learn from best practice approaches to these issues.”

As part of the FOI, Funnell and Channel 7 also investigated how other disciplinary measures with sexual assault cases.

“From the universities that did comply, we found they were far more likely to give expulsions over plagiarism than sexual assault.”

Channel 7 and Funnell also asked for sexual assault data from the police under the FOI Act. Using street locations close to universities, they were able find the details of sexual assaults at university campuses, otherwise not revealed by university data.

“In one case, a female student reported being raped on campus after she met a man through the Tinder app and arranged to meet at the University of Melbourne gates,” Funnell said, reading a police report from last year.

In response to the rejected FOI, a University of Melbourne spokesperson said, “The University believed that releasing such documentation would violate the privacy and confidentiality of the individuals concerned.”

Following the investigation with Channel 7, this year Nina Funnell and End Rape on Campus asked all Australian universities to openly release their sexual assault complaint data on an annual basis.

Vice Chancellor of the Sydney of University, Dr Michael Spence, formally committed to releasing the number of sexual assault complaints the University receives each year.

“End Rape on Campus then put out a call for the other 38 vice chancellors to follow Dr Michael Spence’s lead, and Melbourne University did not,” Funnell said.

“That, for me, raises serious concerns about how committed they are to transparency and accountability … Students have a right to this information, and they have a right to expect that their University be transparent and accountable.”

As of late August, eight universities had agreed to EROC’s request to publish their sexual assault complaint data annually. Among those were the Australian National University, the University of New South Wales and the University of Queensland.

A University of Melbourne spokesperson said, “No decision has been made regarding the future release of statistics around sexual harassment and sexual assault… the University has established a Respect Taskforce… [which] will discuss all aspects of its proposals for the future with the University community prior to any implementation.”

Funnell told Farrago she was surprised at the University’s decision not to release their data.

“We are really disappointed that the University of Melbourne has not considered the safety of students a significant priority to the point that they would be willing to release data,” Funnell said.

“It’s a good news story if they commit, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate that they really are genuinely committed to having transparent conversations with students.”

Should the University of Melbourne and other Australian universities continue to protect their sexual assault complaints data in the future, Funnell and EROC plans to launch more FOI investigations.

“We are giving [the universities] a fair chance to do the right thing and come on board voluntarily, but those that stubbornly refuse, we will absolutely be FOI-ing them, and we will be dragging them kicking and screaming to the table one way or another,” Funnell said.