The NUS’s prissy war on ‘lad culture’

Not content with trying to control what students say, the NUS wants to police how they play, too.

Not so long ago, wannabe student reps would try to cajole votes out of students by promising them cheap alcohol and a more enjoyable uni experience. Today, student reps seem determined to bleed the fun out of uni life in the name of ‘creating a safer, more positive, more empowering culture on our campuses’, in the words of the UK National Union of Students (NUS).

Aspirant student bureaucrats, clearly having missed the 1990s, have discovered a ‘new’ phenomenon: ‘lad culture’. ‘It seems that “lad culture” is suddenly everywhere in higher education’, writes the outgoing president of the NUS in an introduction to a recent report on the problem of laddishness. Blokes, especially those in rugby and football teams, are apparently getting drunk and engaging in laddish behaviour, encouraged by club promoters. Some of these lads even seem to believe that a drunken night out is an opportunity to get laid. What madness has descended upon British universities?

At this year’s NUS conference in Sheffield, students debated ‘The good, the LAD, and the ugly: what needs to be done to combat “lad culture” in higher education?’. They were joined by a representative from the No More Page 3 campaign group, which wants to get rid of images of topless women from the Sun newspaper.

One student rep is so concerned about the ‘growing trend’ of lad culture that she tabled a motion at the conference demanding that student unions take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach towards it. According to the motion – which looks set to be decided upon later in the year – ‘lad culture has become prevalent in the entertainment and promotional industry, which is so closely connected to student life’. This apparently conflicts with a university’s duty to ‘ensure that all students, regardless of gender, feel safe and are not segregated in both social and academic situations’. We are witnessing a ‘horrific normalisation of sexist attitudes and sexual pressure’, apparently.

In an interview with The Times, the student who proposed the motion explained that she is targeting fliers for freshers’ week pub crawls that have themes such as ‘pimps and hoes’. She said: ‘The problem I have is not with the event, it is with the advertising and the themes. “Pimps and hoes” shouldn’t be used, it is despicable.’

If the motion is passed in the future, university sports societies that engage in sexist or laddish initiations could also face a ‘clampdown’, with misbehaving students who ‘catcall or grope women students or undress themselves’ potentially facing disciplinary action, or even expulsion. Furthermore, the motion proposes that all external entertainment companies should be vetted to ensure they will create a ‘safe space’ for women and that ‘their promotional material does not promote lad culture’.

So concerned is the NUS about ‘lad culture’ that it commissioned some ‘independent’ research to investigate it. Published last month under the title That’s What She Said: Women Students’ Experiences of ‘Lad Culture’ in Higher Education, it contains lengthy quotes from female students talking about how lad culture, sporting initiations and freshers’ week makes them feel uncomfortable. ‘It’s like you are expected to go out. If you don’t go out on freshers’ then nobody will speak to you ever again’, one student complained.

This research is hardly neutral. The NUS commissioned academics from the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Sussex carry it out, among focus groups of 40 female students from across Britain. The report admits that ‘our findings cannot be classified as representative’, since most interviews were with middle-class ‘white, British undergraduates’. More strikingly, 76 per cent of respondents classified themselves as feminists. Contrast that to a recent survey that found only eight per cent of British women aged 20 to 24 called themselves feminists. This is straightforward advocacy research, designed to boost with a phony evidence base a prejudice that already exists among student leaders.

Unsurprisingly, the report concludes that ‘the student movement must take action to combat the emergence of “lad culture” in higher education and the negative impacts this is having on students’. The NUS says it is planning to ‘lay out a clear path to tackling “lad culture” and creating a safer, more positive, more empowering culture on our campuses’.

The NUS has a long history of vetting speech. Its ‘no platform’ policies allow it to gag people it deems to too dangerous for students to hear, lest these vulnerable young adults are offended or warped. Now it seems it wants to regulate students’ behaviour more broadly, in the name of creating a ‘safe space’ for all.

In its quest to create an ever-safer space for students, the NUS looks set to undermine one of the best things about campus life: the chance to engage with fellow students and, in doing so, to grow and become a more rounded adult. This means experimenting, talking openly, making friends, sometimes being hedonistic. In trying to straitjacket students by regulating their behaviour through ‘zero tolerance’ policies, the NUS is doing the students it claims to represent a great disservice.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

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