In the Dark

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Words || Katelyn Free

It’s about two weeks ago, after a long meeting at uni and I’m scurrying down Wally’s Walk. I hurry to my car trying to escape the late night winter air. The fairy lights bathe my path in a gentle glow, guiding me down to the carpark. Then the lighting stops. It’s almost completely dark. There’s a group of guys off to the side smoking and shoving each other around. I can’t see anyone else in the carpark. I pull out my keys, slide them between my fingers and start jogging to my car. 

The fairy lights that line Wally’s Walk are the result of an SRC resolution in 2016 to improve lighting around campus after concerns about student safety. In a meeting on the 25th of July, the Macquarie University SRC passed a new resolution to spend $12,000 of students’ Student Services and Amenities Fees to assist Macquarie’s Property team in improving lighting around key areas of campus. This $12,000 is coming out of a $200,000 yearly budget given to the SRC from student’s Student Services and Amenities Fees. 

Jayden Whaites-Fruitrich, Student Representative for the Faculty of Science and Engineering, stated that the “SRC has unanimously supported a motion to light up our campus. The proposal, authored by University Council Member Alexander Habutzel and myself, is an important step to providing a safer and more welcoming campus for all students.”

The University financially assisted the previous SRC proposal in installing the fairy lights, raising the budget to $100,000. While the SRC did have to contribute some of the pool raised by student amenities fees, the university contributed substantially. 

Grapeshot has been informed by the SRC that the proposed lighting project will cost $40,000 in total, and the difference will be paid by the University. Whaites-Fruitrich further noted that “this will help to increase the number of thoroughfares illuminated by street lighting. It will also provide lighting to university services used at night, such as the basketball courts and other social areas”. 

The update to the campus lighting will be the first significant change to Macquarie’s campus environment, to improve the physical safety of students on campus, since 2016. In 2017 the Australian Human Rights Commission released the ‘Change the Course’ report. The report detailed the significant issues surrounding student safety on university campuses, particularly safety from sexual harassment and assault. 

The report found that 51% of university students were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016, and 6.9% of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016. A significant proportion of the sexual harassment experienced by students in 2015 and 2016 occurred in university settings. These settings included on campus, travelling to or from university and at university employment.

In response to the ‘Change the Course’ report, Macquarie established Respect. Now. Always. RNA is an initiative on campus aimed at changing the University’s culture surrounding sexual assault and harassment, through providing education to students and improving the University’s responses to sexual violence. Amber Loomis of RNA reflected that “since the 2017 Change the Course Report, The Respect. Now. Always. team has worked with diverse stakeholders across, and at all levels of the university, as well as with external agencies and services”.

She detailed that in 2018, the University launched its 2018-2020 Action Plan drew action plans not only from Change the Course report recommendations, but also recommendations from advocacy organisations, international examples of best practice, and consultation with Macquarie University students and staff.

Key progress has included the  implementation of the Student Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment Policy in semester one of this year, and well as the implementation of an online reporting system. She also noted that in semester two of this year, the Staff Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response Policy will be rolled out. Increased face-to-face education for Macquarie University Mentors, Residential Advisors, University sports representatives, Student Leaders and general students was also highlighted by Loomis as a key achievement in the university’s progress towards a safer campus. 

However, Loomis recognised that “There are two big challenges with this work. First, cultural change, which is inherent to the work of Respect. Now. Always. takes time. Second, people need to step up, to create a safe campus. We all have a role to play in changing attitudes, expectations and behaviour”. 

While the progress outlined by Loomis on Macquarie’s response to sexual harassment and assault on campus is not insignificant, a spokesperson for the Macquarie Women’s Collective noted that concerns around safety for students on campus are still very much alive.

The Women’s Collective stated regarding the SRC resolution for increased lighting on campus, that it “is a great initiative and important on campus to ensure student safety. However, as a collective we believe that our safety on campus should be paid for by the university’s money and not funded directly by us. The university has a duty of care to the safety and wellbeing to all individuals on campus.”

The Collective noted that “From the Macquarie University’s Data on Sexual Assault and Harassment on campus back in 2017, of the 950 students who responded to the survey- Almost one third of this group experienced sexual harassment in a university setting and 77 of the 950 respondents to the survey had been sexually assaulted at least once in 2015 and 2016”.

While this data is a couple of years old, it highlights that despite changes and new policies, the issue of sexual violence on campus is still alive and well. As the Collective asserts, “All university students deserve the right to access their education but, in this world, where one in two Australian young women don’t feel safe walking alone at night (Mission Australia Gender Gaps 2018 Youth Survey) with the prevalent everyday awareness that assaults and murders do exist for women in particular in Australia and around the world”.

“Universities, ESPECIALLY Macquarie, must do more and do better to make sure everyone has access to a safe education in this particular case for them to spend the money for increased lighting on campus and not us”.

There is no denying that the positive impact of successive Student Representative Councils’ initiatives to increase lighting and safety on campus. However, the use of $12,000 from students’ amenities fees generates concerns about the allocation of SRC funds. While this project will have a clearly beneficial effect for student safety on campus, it’s unclear whether students themselves should be required to foot the bill for their own safety. Especially when Property has informed Grapeshot that they are “currently implementing a fully funded campus lighting upgrade project”, and noted that “While the SRC’s generous plan to contribute $12,000 to this program of work is greatly appreciated, this amount could be redirected elsewhere, as determined by the SRC.”

I’ve made it to my car and the biting evening air is searing my nose and burning my lungs. I fumble with my keys a little as I climb down into my Mazda and slam my door, locking it. Looking out across the carpark, lights are dotted here and there, providing sanctuaries of illumination. But between them, there are large pools of darkness.