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Is The National Student Safety Survey Re-traumatising Students For Nothing?



Content warning: sexual assault and harassment, National Student Safety Survey, and mention of Bettina Arndt.

The National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) was rolled out in September 2021, inviting 10,000 students per university to anonymously take part. Taking 10-12 minutes to complete, the survey purports to “collect data on the scale and nature of university student experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment.” The survey is conducted by Associate Professor Anastasia Powell of RMIT University for the Social Research Centre (SRC) in collaboration with Universities Australia, and funded by the Respect. Now. Always (RNA). Initiative.

Responses to the survey will be confidential, de-identified and aggregated, with the results presented in 2022, and are said to be used to improve policies and services for university students in Australia. There is ambiguity around the extent to which the survey is grounded in the lived experience of survivors because the Universities Australia website mentions only that “students, survivors, experts and key organisations,” had input into the process. This survey builds on the first survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2016, which was presented in 2017 as the Change the Course Report. Since that report, varying actions have been taken across universities. Here at Macquarie we have seen the introduction of consent education modules, first responder and bystander awareness training for student leaders and staff, and an updated reporting system.

As student advisors to RNA at Macquarie University, Macquarie University Women’s Collective (WoCo) co-presidents Amanda Matthews and Elizabeth Payne were made privy to the objectives of the NSSS as provided directly to the university administration.

These objectives were:

  • To determine the current prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harrassment among students at Australian universities.

  • Explore the context within which sexual assault and harassment occurs, including the setting, connection to the perpetrator, and pattern of abusive behaviour.

  • Examine awareness and behaviours towards help seeking and reporting in relation to sexual assault and harassment.

  • Explore perceptions of safety at Australian universities and attitudes toward sexual assault and sexual harassment.

  • Identify key socio-demographic correlations of sexual assault and harassment, as well as to help seeking and reporting.

On September 1st an email was sent from the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) informing selected students that they had been invited to participate, and outlining the purpose of the survey. The email also stated, “If you do experience any distress, you can access a list of free and confidential support here [and supplied an embedded link].” However when clicked, the link to access support took participants to a webpage which read “Error 404: Woops. Looks like this page doesn't exist,” on the Social Research Centre website. With no follow up email to correct this mistake, this leaves those selected to complete the survey to seek out support resources themselves. Additionally, despite being sent from within the university it included no mention, or links to, Macquarie-specific support or reporting services.

Luckily the email from the Social Research Centre sent on September 6th with the link to complete the survey had the correct support services document attached, stated the Student Wellbeing Support lines for Macquarie, alongside national numbers for 1800 RESPECT, Mensline Australia, Relationships Australia, Adults Surviving Child Abuse (Blueknot), QLife, and Bravehearts among others. While relying on existing support services rather than establishing new ones specifically for this survey is understandable, there is ambiguity around whether these support services have been appropriately prepared for this specific survey in the first place. Has additional training been provided?

RNA project lead Penny Huisman said that the RNA team were informed that Student Wellbeing staff, university staff, and university accommodation providers were briefed about the survey “with reminders about how to assist students to seek support or make a report about their experience, to the university.” They also “rostered on increased casual staffing in Wellbeing, to be able to offer more urgent, same day appointments, and we also had four new staff commencing (social worker, psychologist and two Wellbeing advisors) to increase support capacity.” In addition to this they “contacted Northern Sydney Sexual Assault Service to let them know about the survey and establish a streamlined referral process that our staff could access, if needed.” Universities Australia and Rape and Domestc Violence Services Australia collaborated to offer two 1.5 hour online training modules to two representatives from the Women’s Collective and one representative from the Queer Collective to complete in preparation for an increase in disclosures surrounding this survey. Ironically, some of those representatives were also participants in the survey.

Despite the measures, when talking to our members they said they still didn’t feel safe or supported when doing the survey. The RNA team are knowledgeable, passionate, and extremely hard-working and we believe they are trying their best to make this university safer despite pushback. That said, they are underfunded and understaffed. With the abhorrent amount of staff and course cuts we have seen across the university these last couple of years, it is no surprise that student (and staff) trust in the university's administration has almost completely diminished, because we do not know what resources will be slashed next.

As for the survey itself, the questions asked revolved primarily around perceptions of safety, experiences of sexual harassment and assault, reporting, and support. As this research is still underway we won’t be critiquing the questions asked, but rather focusing on our experiences completing them.

Statement 1:

“It felt weird to quantify my experiences in this way, ticking yes to so many things. I appreciated that a spectrum of violence was included, that even the experiences we often deem not worth reporting or almost normal, like being stared at or receiving requests for sexual images, were recognised. Having all these types of experiences laid out made me realise I have been through so many more experiences of harassment than I thought. This realisation was affirming, in that my experiences happened and that they can be recognised. But I also felt less than optimistic that being reminded of these traumas was going to result in any real change from the university.”

22-year-old, woman, bisexual, survivor of image-based abuse.

Statement 2:

“It was after the first National Student Safety Survey results and the Change the Course Report was released, and Macquarie University introduced the ‘Consent Matters’ course, that the Macquarie University Liberal Society invited Bettina Arndt to present her “Fake Rape Tour” on our campus. This was even after the riot against Bettina at USYD [The University of Sydney]. It was here that I sat in an audience of 200 students, most of whom were white, educated, wealthy male students and heard Bettina tell the audience that “no doesn’t always mean no.” I waited until the Q&A, stood up, shared that I am a survivor and asked that Bettina state her credibility to speak on these issues. The Facebook event stated that the seminar wouldn’t be recorded, but someone in the audience recorded my question and her answer, without my knowledge and it was uploaded to YouTube, with a voice-over referring to me as “hijacking her presentation.” Everything about my experience at this seminar, held on campus, stood in direct opposition to what Macquarie University *appeared* to be trying to do by – at the same time – introducing the ‘Consent Matters’ course. It felt like no one with the power of influence to stop her actually cared enough to do anything. In semester 2, 2020 I was a first responder to a sexual assault at Macquarie University. I spent 4 hours in a police station, an incident report was filed and the male student who committed the act fronted the university disciplinary committee. We don't know what happened to the male student. We don't know if he got expelled. We don't know if he was given a slap on the wrist and is walking around campus today. The university was unable to share the outcome with us due to confidentiality. Never mind the peace of mind of the survivor and I and our friends and family. If universities are not interested in using checks and balances and circling back to students to be transparent and accountable so students feel safe, what is the point of re-traumatising students by asking them to provide detailed responses to survey questions? It seems unethical and negligent.

32-year-old Indigenous student, child sexual abuse survivor, and first responder to a sexual assault on Macquarie University campus in semester 2, 2020.

Statement 3:

“We're pleased that feedback from the 2016 survey was addressed and that this survey appears to be a lot more accessible for survivors. We highly encourage everyone who has been selected, to take the survey, whether they've experienced sexual violence or not, because your responses will give us the data we need to create safer campuses for everyone.”

Lydia Jupp, Representative of End Rape On Campus Australia and Former President of the Macquarie University Women’s Collective.

While collecting the data is important, if nothing comes of this, we will have retraumatised ourselves for nothing. We need to see assurances from the university that changes will be made, and sexual violence on campus will stop. But this work needs to look beyond just this report, be co-designed with survivors at Macquarie, and seek to rectify the harm already done to students.

The Women’s Collective and Queer Collective executive teams want to see:

  • Mandatory consent training for all students that could be incentivised by making it an accredited course that is recognised on our transcripts, the same way the GLP program is recognised.

  • Mandatory trauma-informed responding to disclosures (trauma-informed training, responding with compassion, bystander awareness, and introduction to vicarious trauma training should be available and accessible for all students, to equip us and instil confidence to intervene as bystanders).

  • Diverse, victim-survivor support staff, and survivor-led services.

  • Trauma-informed, survivor-led approach taken to all matters of student safety.

  • Information about how to report should be widely publicised a link on iLearn, the Macquarie University library website, eStudent, and supplied in every single Vice-Chancellor email.

  • Communication processes introduced for circling back to victims about the outcomes of disciplinary actions against perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment on campus.

  • Increased funding and staff for the Respect Now Always team to pay victim-survivor student advisors to join this team.

  • Implementation of the survey's recommendations.

We don’t see these changes as a pipe dream, they are realistic, achievable, and are necessary to make this university a safe space for all of us. If the university genuinely wants to step up, make these changes, and help support survivors, we would love to chat with you.

If you found the content in this article distressing or need support please reach out to the services provided below.

If you would like to make a report or look into reporting head to

If you have any questions about reporting you can directly message The Women’s Collective on our socials (@mq.woco) or email us ( and we would be happy to help.


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