Our Stories in Numbers: The representation of victim survivors in the National Student Safety Survey

17 September 2021

cw: mentions of sexual assault and harassment, institutional neglect

From  6 September to 3 October, Universities Australia—the country’s peak corporate body of higher education—is running the National Student Safety Survey (NSSS). Conducted by  Dr. Anastasia Powell (RMIT), and the Social Research Centre, the survey is aimed at “encouraging students to share about their experiences of sexual harassment, sexual assault or unwanted sexual behaviour.”

In 2016, the first survey of this kind was conducted by the Human Rights Commission. Titled “Respect. Now. Always”, it revealed harrowing details. One in five (21 per cent) students are sexually harassed in a university setting. Women are three times as likely to experience sexual assault as men. (Notably, gender-nonconforming people were left out of identifying themselves in this survey) Most egregiously—about 90 per cent of students who experience sexual assault and harassment do not report it to their university. 

This report came out in 2017, and between then and now, four teams of UMSU Women’s Officers have sat on countless Respect Taskforce meetings and stakeholder consults. We have organised rallies, petitions and campaigns. We have worked with Dr. Patrick Tidmarsh, the UMSU Sexual Harm and Response Coordinator, extensively consulted students and delivered a set of student priorities that should be the focus of the University’s commitment to student safety.

However, it was only this year—shortly after a high-profile sexual assault coverup was reported by The Age—that the University (FINALLY) committed to writing a standalone sexual misconduct policy. The policy consultations occurred over four months, even though the University had FOUR YEARS between the last survey and this one. The University is simultaneously speed-rolling an online safety policy to tackle diversifying forms of harassment. While these are much-needed changes, that they are being made only on the eve of the survey, appears to be a deliberate procrastination. 

The current survey will be sent out to a random sample of 10,000 students. The report does not track response rate, and only computes results on available responses. The rate of response depends on many  factors—fatigue and trauma, available support, identity, and language—that are not factored into the results. When the survey says 87 per cent of students who were sexually harassed did not report to the University, it does not specify whether students recognised the events that happened as sexual assault/harassment, or whether the system was just too complicated for them to make a report. In my personal experience as a Women’s Officer, lots of survivors tell me they never report because they “did not know if it was serious enough”. That’s one of the biggest problems with a survey like this—it does not account for people who do not know or want to neatly categorise their experiences into finite, quantitative values. 

It also effectively puts the survey findings in a ‘blind spot’. The new policy was put up on the University’s ‘public consultation hub’, but how many students will voluntarily respond to jargon-embossed policy on an obscure website? The policy is expected to come into effect after the close of response period for the survey, meaning the gaps revealed by the survey will be the effects of older policies and the Uni’s shameful inaction. The University will then be able to say they have enacted a new policy and take no responsibility for the harm caused by earlier policies and institutional neglect.  

Another big red flag is that the survey depends on the University to send it out—while including questions on the University’s own behaviour, such as whether students think reporting procedures are adequate, or feel safe at uni. Sexual violence being a crime of power, this gives the University undue power in controlling the timing of the survey, and consequently, the response to it. In 2016, several universities sent out the survey during exam periods, knowing students would not have capacity to respond. A Vice Chancellor and former chair of Universities Australia was permitted to work under the project despite the survey meaning to be independent of Chancellors and university executives. The University’s power tactics and inaction puts the burden of taking care of students on student representatives like us, who are usually young and from vulnerable communities ourselves. 

Surveys are critically important in identifying gaps and shaping actions that universities undertake to protect students. Yet, personal experiences with the University’s safety management and reporting procedures are often too complicated to numerically represent—and this gets significantly worse for intersecting marginalised identities. As a disabled trans person of colour and an international student, reporting is significantly more difficult for me for a variety of reasons that are too difficult to pinpoint in ordinal value responses (Yes/No). The comprehension of intersectional experiences of sexual assault and harassment requires extended periods of consultation with students and alumni on universities, TAFE institutions and residential college.

Of course, the surveys have gotten better since 2016. This year’s survey includes varying options for gender and lets respondents self-identify. Unlike last time, this year’s survey received Human Research Ethics approval, and is more trauma-informed. After a lot of lobbying by the National Union of Students, Women’s Officers from participating Universities have undergone Vicarious Trauma Training. 

While this survey is an important foundational step, it is NOT ENOUGH. There is more to do—like getting translatable services and making the survey available in other languages so more people can feel comfortable talking about their grief and trauma. Surveys function on detailed feedback, to predict patterns, comprehend data and avoid making sweeping numerical generalisations of people’s real experiences. Victim-survivors are more than numbers, we are stories. We need prolonged conversations  beyond a ten-minute survey every five years, and deserve better than a procrastinated policy on sexual misconduct on a tighter deadline than a college essay. We need sustained actions, policies written with love, consultations that are kinder. Without that, the National Student Safety Survey is just a numerical record of how much students are hurting, with no real follow-up. 

When I recall my experiences of assault, I remember how many times I was asked to not talk about it. My stories, our stories, must be heard and believed with love, not lost as a statistic in some survey on someone’s desk. 

And that is all we ask, to be loved and remembered—as a living, breathing story.


Srishti Chatterjee is an UMSU Women’s Office Bearer for 2020-2021.

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