Under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 it is against the law for education providers to treat, or propose to treat, someone unfavourably because of a personal characteristic protected by law. It is also against the law for education providers to sexually harass someone.
Discrimination is against the law in a wide range of education situations, including schools, colleges, universities or other institutions where training or education is provided. It also covers people or bodies that run educational institutions.
How can discrimination in education happen?
Treating you unfavourably might include:
- refusing to admit you as a student. For example, because of your ethnic background
- denying or limiting your access to benefits available to other students. For example, because of your disability
- unfairly expelling you. For example, because of your sexual orientation
- failing to take adequate steps to prevent or resolve an issue if someone discriminates against or sexually harasses you.
Examples of discrimination in education
Mirjana is enrolled in a politics and international relations subject at university. Her class is currently studying the conflict in her home country and her tutor frequently makes derogatory comments about people of her nationality while looking and pointing at Mirjana. This makes her feel very uncomfortable.
Renske is hassled and bullied at school because a newspaper prints an article that says her mother has HIV. The school fails to stop the bullying and Renske eventually leaves the school.
Are there any exceptions to the law?
The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 includes some exceptions, which mean that discrimination will not be against the law in particular circumstances.
Positive steps can also be taken to help disadvantaged groups using special measures, which is not discrimination under the law.
If an exception or special measure does not apply, in some circumstances an exemption from the Act may be sought from the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
The Act also includes four exceptions in the provision of education where discrimination is permitted.
Programs for specific education needs
Schools and other education providers may run programs entirely or mainly for students of a particular sex, race, religious belief or age group, or for students with a disability.
The exception allows education providers to target education towards the needs of particular groups. Students may be ineligible for such programs if they do not have the relevant personal characteristic.
Adjustments not reasonable
An education provider is required to make reasonable adjustments for a person with a so that they can participate in, or benefit from, an educational program.
There are some specific exceptions regarding reasonable adjustments, which means that education providers may not have to make changes to accommodate students with disability if:
- the required changes are not reasonable, or
- the student with the disability could not participate in education even if the changes were made, or
- where they already comply with, or have been exempted from, the federal Education Standards.
Similarly, an educational provider will not need to make an adjustment where it relates to a physical adjustment to a building, and a determination has been made under section 160B of the Building Act 1993 in relation to that building, exempting the building from further modifications being made.
Anti-discrimination laws and the Education Standards do not require education providers to make changes that would incur significant costs or disadvantage. This is called unjustifiable hardship.
However, before coming to this conclusion, an education provider should:
- thoroughly consider how access might be provided
- discuss the issues directly with the person or groups involved
- consult relevant sources of advice.
Unjustifiable hardship is based on an assessment of what is fair and reasonable in the circumstances.
Dress, appearance and behaviour standards
Schools, colleges and other education providers may set and enforce reasonable standards of dress, appearance and behaviour for students.
A standard will be reasonable if the school has taken the views of the school community into account in setting the standard. The school community would include students, staff, parents, and members of school committees and councils.
For other educational institutions, whether or not standards are reasonable will depend on all the circumstances of the case.
Education providers can select students for educational programs based on their age if the provider:
- has a minimum qualifying age. For example, a child must be five years old to start school
- imposes quotas for students of different ages or age groups.
This exception enables education providers to cater for the different developmental and learning needs of students of different ages.
Make a complaint to the Commission
If you think you have been discriminated against, sexually harassed, or vilified, contact us and talk about your concerns. Our dispute resolution service is free and confidential. We can send you information about the complaint process and if we can’t help you we will try to refer you to someone who can.
To make a complaint:
- contact us by phone, in person or email. We also have a free interpreter service
- submit your complaint online or download our complaint form (DOC, 230KB).
Find out more about making a complaint.