Two weeks ago the NUS launched its latest attack on “lad culture” at UK universities, with the publication of a survey of students’ experiences of sexism, with the accompanying claim that harassment “is rife on campus”.
The survey found 37% of women and 12% of men who responded said they had faced unwelcome sexual advances, while 36% of women who took part said they had experienced unwanted sexual comments about their body, compared with 16% of men.
The first question that springs to mind, is why findings showing that a third to fifty percent of those experiencing sexism are male students, isn’t also evidence of “ladette culture”?
The report also included these quotes from students who took part, neither of which were highlighted in the accompanying press release or articles:
‘Lad Culture Summit’
“I think it is a little overdramatizing and sexist in that it only looks at the over sexualisation of women. As a woman I do not feel that I am vulnerable and that I do go out to events dressed sexily because I want to and I can handle myself.” Woman, 3rd year university
“Although I have witnessed other men making sexual comments amongst themselves about a woman’s personal appearance, I notice that this behaviour amongst women discussing a man’s physical attractiveness is just as common and deemed much more socially acceptable!” Man, 2nd year university
But the most important question is why, in light of the deepening crisis in young men’s university attendance and educational achievement in general, does the NUS feel that “lad culture” is the most pressing gender issue on campus in the first place?
Since 2010, the NUS has produced a series of high-profile reports, consultations and surveys aimed at revealing what it says is a widespread climate of sexism against female students at UK universities, including a “Lad Culture Summit” in February of this year, covered with live updates on the Guardian website.
Male students a ‘disadvantaged group’
If there is an issue with “lad culture” on campus, then clearly it should be addressed. But the NUS is tasked with representing all of its members – not just female students. So why has it simultaneously downplayed male students’ experiences of sexism and produced no research into the issues facing men at university?
In January this year UCAS reported that there were now a third more girls applying for university than boys, leading the head of the organisation to state that male students are becoming “a disadvantaged group”.
Then in September, exam results revealed the gap had widened even further, with 52,000 less men than women allocated places, jumping from 46,000 fewer places for male students last year.
This disparity hides even starker figures at individual campuses and on particular courses. In 2013, the Guardian published a gender breakdown of students across universities and subject areas, with the conclusion: “The sheer number of female students means that they outnumber boys on the majority of courses, but those most dominated by women include veterinary science and subjects allied to medicine and education.”
What are male students’ needs?
At 20 institutions there were twice as many female fulltime undergraduates as male undergraduates. At Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Institute of Education, respectively 79.5%, 83.3% and 85.7% of undergraduate students were female.
In terms of subject areas, law, veterinary science, education and subjects allied to medicine, respectively 61.7%, 79.5%, 80.4% and 82.1% of undergraduates were female.
These figures beg the question, what must it be like for a young man to be so completely outnumbered by female students? How does this impact on his experience of university? To what extent does this imbalance affect male students’ ability to be heard and have their educational needs acknowledged, particularly in a climate that appears to cast male students as privileged, potential aggressors?
These figures also throw into question the claims by the NUS that there is widespread sexism against female students on campus. On courses and at universities where 80% of students are female, are female students really facing a culture that is “rife” with sexual harassment and sexism?
NUS has no men’s officer
I asked the NUS if they had done any research into men’s experience of university in light of the gender gap on campus, or if they were planning any work to raise awareness of the crisis in male applicants. The press office declined to answer repeated requests for this information. From the list of reports published on the NUS research website, none address male-specific concerns of students. The NUS has a women’s officer, but no men’s officer. The press office said they did not know if there were any NUS men’s officers at individual universities.
This is from the NUS press office response to my questions.
“The plain fact is that there are too few women in leadership positions, whether in the student movement, education, workplace or wider society – and those that are face intolerable barriers.
“Having the post of women’s officer is not much to ask in the face of such inequalities and they are often campaigning on campuses for things men already have. The sexism that women face is part of the system and exists at every level of our lives. It’s important to remember that the remaining posts in students’ unions, often four or five of them, campaign on behalf of men too.”
‘To suggest that men need a specific space to be ‘men’ is ludicrous’
Leaving aside the debatable question as to whether the lack of women in leadership roles is due to the “intolerable barriers” they face, or what exactly the “things men already have” on campus but women don’t are; surely the role of the NUS is to represent students, not to campaign for more women in Parliament or on the boards of FTSE 100 companies?
But the NUS’ underlying attitude to the welfare of male students was most-starkly revealed in 2009 — a year before the first report that led to its anti-lad culture campaign — when students at Manchester and Oxford universities set up men’s societies, to discuss what it means to be a man in contemporary society and address issues such as men’s mental health, testicular cancer and men’s experience of domestic violence.
The societies were ferociously attacked by student women’s officers, with Olivia Bailey, then NUS national women’s officer, stating: “Discrimination against men on the basis of gender is so unusual as to be non-existent, so what exactly will a men’s society do?”
“To suggest that men need a specific space to be ‘men’ is ludicrous, when everywhere you turn you will find male-dominated spaces,” she added.
By “everywhere you turn”, she presumably did not mean virtually every university in the UK.
The stated aim of the lad culture campaign is to ensure that “students’ unions and universities must work together to create campuses that are welcoming, safe and supportive to all”.
It is hard to see how an organisation whose role is to represent all students, yet focuses exclusively on the problems faced by women, while simultaneously vilifying male students and dismissing their concerns, will achieve this goal.
By Dan Bell
Do you think the NUS should be doing more to support male students? What do you think about the lad culture campaign? Are you a student, what do you think of the NUS’ approach to gender issues in general?
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