Sydney – More than half of university students in Australia were sexually harassed last year and 7% sexually assaulted on at least one occasion, a "disturbing" new national study revealed on Tuesday.
The findings came in an Australian Human Rights Commission report, conducted on behalf of the country's 39 universities that questioned more than 30 000 students, after years of activism by women's groups to discover the extent of the problem.
Women were three times as likely as men to be sexually assaulted and almost twice as likely to be sexually harassed, either on-campus, travelling to and from the university or at off-campus events endorsed by the institution.
"The unavoidable conclusion of the data... is that incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring at unacceptable rates at Australian universities," said Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
"While anybody can experience sexual assault or sexual harassment, it is clear from the data that women at university experience these behaviours at disproportionately higher rates than men.
"This adds weight to the body of evidence that highlights disturbing rates of sexual violence against women in Australia."
The report said almost a third of the harassment occurred on university grounds or in teaching spaces, while one-in-five of the assaults happened at a university or residence social event.
Report 'broke my heart'
Australian universities, which have more than one million pupils enrolled, are hugely popular with international students, particularly from China and India.
Many of those affected – including international students – did not formally report the incident, with the vast majority saying their university did not do enough to provide clear direction on what to do and where to seek support.
"It broke my heart to read this report," Sophie Johnston, from the National Union of Students, told reporters. "This is a cultural battle we are fighting everywhere."
The report made nine recommendations, including the need to change attitudes and behaviour and to ensure an independent and systemic review of how universities respond.
Universities Australia, the body representing the country's university sector, immediately announced a 10-point plan to tackle the issue.
This included a 24/7 support line, new training for staff to recognise and deal with the problem, and a commitment to a follow-up survey to track progress.
"We send a strong and clear message today that these behaviours are not acceptable. Not on our campuses – and not in Australian society," Universities Australia chair Margaret Gardner said.
"We have listened, and we will act."