Changing Course: University Mandatory Consent Module Underperforms17 July 2018
Content warning: sexual assault and sexual harassment
The University of Melbourne introduced Consent Matters, an online sexual consent tutorial mandatory for all incoming undergraduate students, at the start of 2018. The move follows the damning report into sexual assault and harassment on campus by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) last year, which revealed that one in two university students were sexually harassed in 2016.
The interactive module has been marketed as part of a broader plan to overhaul a culture of sexual assault on campuses, and has been implemented by the University of Melbourne, the University of Sydney and Australian National University.
According to a spokesperson for the University, the module “aims to raise awareness of students about policies surrounding sexual consent and where to go for help and advice.” Despite this, concerns have been raised about the nature of the module, which has received criticism from students for its tokenistic approach.
The Consent Matters module functions as a guideline for how to understand the concepts of consent to foster a safe and respectful environment. The module uses a variety of animated scenarios to educate students about communication, boundaries, and respect. The only hurdle requirement after viewing multiple slides is 10 multiple-choice questions. Effectively, a student can pass the test without engaging with any of the information.
According to a report from the University of Melbourne Respect Taskforce in March, approximately 40 per cent of commencing undergraduate students had completed the mandatory unit.
Kate Crossin, women’s officer for the National Union of Students, has questioned the effectiveness of the program: “The consent module we are seeing universities purchase and implement is not proven to change behaviours on campus,” Crossin said. “It doesn’t meet any of the recommendations that have come out of the reports on sexual assault and harassment at universities.”
“It might start a lot of conversations, but at the end of the day it will not prevent assault or harassment,” Crossin said.
The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) women’s officers Molly Willmott and Kareena Dhaliwal, believe that more needs to be done in order to reinforce a proper understanding of the matter.
“Consent modules are a good step toward tackling the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus, but they are not enough on their own,” said Willmott and Dhaliwal.
“They need to be reinforced with further education such as face-to-face training, which is practiced at many colleges throughout Australia.”
The effects of the watershed #MeToo moment were felt on campuses last year as the commission’s report shed light on a culture of harassment. The AHRC report found that college students were around seven times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted whilst at university.
Dr Laura Tarzia, deputy lead of the researching abuse and violence program, echoes these concerns: “Prevention needs to be done comprehensively across campuses and at all levels, rather than just targeting the individual level as this consent module does,” she said.
“[The course] says ‘evidence-based’, but I cannot find information about what that evidence is,” said Tarzia, whose research focuses on using technology as a form of early intervention in situations of violence against women.
The University’s Respect Taskforce, which includes UMSU and the Graduate Student Association representation, recommended the Consent Matters module to the senior leadership following extensive research on good practice examples and advice from the sector both locally and internationally.“
As the AHRC Report noted, there is no one solution to the complex issue of sexual consent. Consent Matters is part of a larger program of work in progress being led by the Respect Taskforce,” a spokesperson for the University said.
If you or someone you know requires counselling or support, the 1800 Respect national support line is open on 1800 737 732. You can also contact CASA’s sexual assault crisis hotline on 1800 806 292 (free call). You can find more resources at https://umsu.unimelb.edu.au/support/survivors/