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Dominic Giannini

Student safety ombudsman still a work in progress

There's still work to be done before a university safety ombudsman can be appointed. (Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS)

Education ministers will work towards an ombudsman to oversee student safety, but the university lobby has warned its powers could go too far.

A draft action plan was put before state and territory ministers to address gender-based violence in higher education on Tuesday.

The ministers agreed to release the draft plan and continue consultation and design work. 

Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly helped put the plan together and briefed the ministers alongside victim-survivor advocates.

The draft outlines a number of actions to strengthen student safety at university. 

They include standing up an independent ombudsman who can handle and investigate complaints and have dispute resolution powers. 

It's envisioned the ombudsman would have the power to recommend  a student have their fees refunded and that policies or practices be changed.

A whole of institution approach to prevent gendered violence, including by senior management, was also floated, as was more accountability for the sector, enhanced oversight of student accommodation and potential legislative reform.

Reducing the need for students to tell multiple providers traumatic stories was included as was a potential sector-wide code outlining rules for consent education and preventing and responding to sexual assault. 

Education Minister Jason Clare said all students needed to feel safe on campus. 

"More needs to be done to make this possible, and more needs to be done to support students and staff when the worst happens," he said.

"This draft action plan sets out the potential reforms to achieve this."

Patty Kinnersly
Patty Kinnersly helped draft the plan to address gender-based violence in higher education.

Universities Australia said it supported the work to address sexual harm.

Chief executive Catriona Jackson said the consultation for the ombudsman had been a good process with the sector's voice being heard. 

"However, the remit of the proposed ombudsman seemingly extends beyond the issue of student safety to include HECS administration and course administration," she said.

"It would be inefficient to create duplication and overlap with existing regulation and regulatory bodies which deal with these issues."

The university sector was slammed by all sides of politics after a parliamentary inquiry found it failed to adequately respond to sexual assaults with victim-survivors saying the follow-up process could be worse than the rape.

The inquiry recommended a task force oversee the sector, saying it had lost faith in universities being able to fix the problem without independent oversight. 

Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who sat on the committee, said the government wasn't moving fast enough and chastised universities for not doing more to prevent and respond to sexual assault. 

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028

Lifeline 13 11 14

beyondblue 1300 22 4636

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