NUS calls for National Duty of Care for University Students

The National Union of Students (NUS) is calling on the federal government to legislate a “National Duty of Care” at Australian universities, making tertiary institutions legally responsible for supporting and protecting student wellbeing.


The National Union of Students (NUS) is calling on the federal government to legislate a “National Duty of Care” at Australian universities, making tertiary institutions legally responsible for supporting and protecting student wellbeing. 

In their submission to the upcoming Australian Universities Accords, which was circulated ahead of this week’s Education Conference (EdCon) in Brisbane, the NUS call on the government to “legislate a National Duty of Care with student voice at the centre”, to create a “system where students are offered a safe, quality experience both on and off campus.”

A duty of care would create a legal obligation for universities across Australia to look after their enrolled students and avoid actions or omissions that could cause students harm. The NUS’ proposal would establish a code of practice for universities to implement a duty of care, requiring them to take reasonable steps to avoid harm and ensure the safety of students and their interests.

Under a university duty of care model, ‘harm’ could cover a broad scope of current student issues, including disability discrimination, a lack of action on sexual assault and harassment, and housing insecurity.

The Australian Universities Accord, which the NUS plans to lobby to implement a duty of care code, is the first broad review of the higher education system since 2008, and aims to build a long-term plan for Australia’s higher education system. The review is being conducted by a panel with experience in the tertiary sector, chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane. Whilst student organisations including the NUS have been invited to make submissions to the panel, the panel itself does not include any students.

This NUS’ submission comes after the results of the 2022 National Student Safety Survey showed that 1 in 6 Australian students had experienced sexual harassment on a university campus, and amid concerns over rising transphobia on the University of Melbourne’s campuses.

When asked about the most significant issues facing higher education students at an EdCon panel on Monday, NUS President Bailey Riley listed the rental crisis and welfare as critical issues that a duty of care could lead to action on.

“Duty of care obviously won’t fix everything, but I think it will change our landscape and the way universities look”. In the same panel, Riley cited the implementation of a national duty of care code as one of the NUS’ top priorities.

The NUS’ submission and recommendations reference New Zealand’s Education (Pastoral Care of Tertiary and International Learners) Code of Practice 2021, with the NUS believing that a duty of care policy for Australian universities should replicate the “best practice” of New Zealand’s model.

The NUS listed the New Zealand code’s “learner centric” focus and recognition “that students are the experts at being students” as key aspects to be included in any Australian model.

The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) President, Hibatallah (Hiba) Adam, is in agreement with the NUS on the need for duty of care.

“If we have a duty of care legislated, it will enable us to pressure the University not to hide behind academic freedom for free speech [when] looking at things such as student safety… especially when it comes to transgender, non-binary students, and just queer students overall”.

Adam referenced concerns over the safety of trans students on the University of Melbourne’s campuses as something a duty of care system could address by ensuring the university “take a clear stand against” actions creating an unsafe campus environment.

Other recommendations the NUS’ submission includes for student welfare is the creation of a National Dispute Resolution Scheme to “fill the gap for student grievances and complaints,” and for “a minimum number of elected student representatives” to be included on a university’s “principle decision-making body”.

An interim report is expected from the Accords by June “with priority actions”, and a final report will be delivered by December 2023.

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