Aaron Golightly, a journalism graduate from Bournemouth University, was disturbed to read of the NUS' dismissive response to recent findings by a major think tank that universities need to do more to support male students. Here he asks, is this just one example of a pattern of NUS failures to support male students?
On May 12 the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a 64-page report that concluded young men were not performing as well as women in higher education. However if you imagined that the National Union of Students would respond to these findings with a resolve to tackle the widening inequality gap in this area, you’d be wrong.
On the publication of the findings, Nick Hillman, co-author of the report and the Director of HEPI, said: "Nearly everyone seems to have a vague sense that our education system is letting young men down, but there are few detailed studies of the problem and almost no clear policy recommendations on what to do about it.
"Young men are much less likely to enter higher education, are more likely to drop out and are less likely to secure a top degree than women. Yet, aside from initial teacher training, only two higher education institutions currently have a specific target to recruit more male students. That is a serious problem that we need to tackle."
"Battle of the sexes?"
The response from NUS vice president Sorana Vieru, quoted in the Independent dismissing the findings, was that the report took a “complex and nuanced issue and turned it into a ‘battle of the sexes’.” It’s impossible not to reserve some admiration for an individual who accuses a 12,000 word report of ignoring nuance and complexity within the confines of a soundbite, yet I find it difficult to believe that if you replaced the words ‘young men’ with perhaps ‘young women’, their response to the report would be so glib and contemptuous.
The NUS do campaign against inequality in a number of different areas affecting women, LGBT and black and ethnic minorities. One group that it seems to constantly overlook however is men. If you trawl the website looking for various campaigns and issues that they’ve seen fit to promote over the years you’ll notice one rather glaring omission. Whilst there exists multiple references to their fight against ‘Lad Culture’, including their own 38-page audit report, there doesn’t appear to be room to address either the subject of male suicides or the widening gap between male and female university applicants.
The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) reports that in 2014 there were 4,623 male suicides in the UK, the single biggest cause of death in men under 45. Given that probably around half of all members are likely to be young men, it’s an issue that would seem a natural fit for the NUS to champion, but you’d be wrong. It’s difficult to find a single thing that anyone from the NUS has ever said urging prioritised concern for this issue, let alone evidence of a concerted and organised national campaign to raise awareness of it.
"Do they just not like men?"
It’s not just at national level where what might be described, at best, as willful ignorance of the subject matter exists. Recently Durham University’s Student Union rejected an application from students wishing to establish a Men’s society that sought specifically to create an environment where male students could address issues such as mental health and suicide where otherwise they might feel uncomfortable or perhaps even less macho doing so.
Does the NUS not care specifically that suicide is the biggest killer of their male members or do they just not like men? You could easily conclude the latter if you perused the Twitter history of NUS committee member Sarah Noble who last year was suspended from the Liberal Democrats for Tweeting her desire to “kill all men”.
If you’re gay and reading this and think that at least you’ll be immune from the blatant misandry then I’ve some bad news. Earlier this year the NUS called for all LGBT societies to drop the position of gay men’s representative in a motion that also concluded that gay males were the likely perpetrators of sexism, racism and transphobia. This assertion wasn’t backed up by facts and figures or even anecdotal testimony, so one can only assume that this conclusion was reached using the logic of: it’s men, innit.
A further, yet perhaps comparatively slight, example of how the NUS care little for the welfare of their male students is seen in their handling of domestic violence awareness. Nobody could or should seek to deny that domestic violence affects women disproportionately and that it is sensible to target awareness campaigns at them. Similar to how you’d imagine the NUS would target awareness on the issue of suicides on the group disproportionately affected (but don’t).
As part of their admirable ‘Recognise the Signs’ promotion of domestic violence awareness the webpage states:
"Domestic violence can also take place in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships, and can involve other family members, including children."
Yet despite acknowledging that domestic violence exists within gay and bisexual relationships, the only support information they provide are the National Domestic Violence Helpline and Women’s Aid, two services that exclusively offer help and support to female victims of domestic violence. This oversight on its own could be considered innocuous, but within the general context of how the NUS seems to view men and the inequalities they face, it’s hard not to view the omission to provide information of any service that would help male victims as part of the ongoing culture of not seeing men’s issues as worthy of concern.
"Drinking from a mug of male tears"
The awful truth is that when it comes to representation from their union, male students are at the back of the queue. Your student rep is far more likely to drink from a ‘male tears’ mug than they are to have ever led or taken part in a cause that promotes awareness of male health issues.
You only have to look at the Twitter accounts of those in senior leadership positions, such as Vice president (Higher Education) Sorana Vieru who in September Tweeted: “I’m no fan of cis white men”.
Or the account of Shelly Asquith, who is, incredibly, Vice President (Welfare) at the National Union of Students, and boasted she was “drinking prosecco from a mug entitled (sic) Men’s Tears” and that she was repulsed at having to “face disgusting men” on her commute to work.
It should perhaps come as no surprise then, that young men feel unable to ask for help on mental health issues when structures that should be there to offer help and support, seem preoccupied with mocking and dismissing their concerns based on historical patriarchy that they had absolutely nothing to do with.
The failure of the NUS to be a prominent voice in campaigns to raise awareness of the issues of male suicides and male educational underachievement cannot continue to go unnoticed. As an organisation it has failed men by refusing to champion issues that affect male students, including suicide and the growing disadvantage men from certain working class backgrounds face in higher education. It’s either that the NUS don’t feel comfortable championing these issues, or it doesn’t care about them.
Either way it’s never been a better time to ask: Does the NUS have a man problem?
By Aaron Golightly