It's no surprise if men decide university isn't for them

Why are researchers preoccupied with 'lad culture' when the under-representation of men among students is the real problem, asks Joanna Williams

February 11, 2016
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Male students have become a rare breed in UK universities.

They were first outnumbered by women as far back as 1992 and, since then, the gender gap has increased annually.

Statistics released by Ucas last week show that this year almost 100,000 more women than men have applied for a university place. In England, women are 36 per cent more likely to submit an application than their male peers; among those from disadvantaged backgrounds this rises to 58 per cent.

Imagine for a minute what would happen if these figures were reversed. I have no doubt there would be panicked calls for an inquiry into what was causing such dramatic gender inequality. There would be demands for better outreach programmes, publicity campaigns and positive discrimination to get girls into higher education.

In reality, the news that boys are significantly less likely to apply to university has passed with little comment.

When the topic of gender and education first became a serious focus for research there was, quite understandably, a preoccupation with the under-representation of women in universities and the difficulties they encountered once there.

It is worth remembering that it was not until 1948 that women were allowed to graduate from the University of Cambridge. However, over the course of the past 25 years the higher education landscape has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, research into gender, access and participation has not kept pace.

Research exploring why white working class men are less likely to go to university does exist, but as even a rough count of journal articles shows, it comprises a tiny fraction of the research published in this area. Too often the under-representation of men is written off as either a “non-issue” or rectifying an historical injustice.

The dominance of feminism within educational research limits both the topics explored and the perspectives adopted. Rather than evaluating the nature and meaning of female success and the creation of new sites of gender inequality, researchers instead seek out the few remaining areas where women can still claim to be at a disadvantage. Attention is drawn to the greater number of male professors and vice-chancellors rather than the sharp increases in female students, postgraduates, researchers and academics.

Alternatively, current research into higher education and gender focuses on the “problem” of masculinity in universities. Growing attention is being paid to “laddism” or “lad culture” and the difficulties this apparently poses for all in universities. Male students are criticised for being confrontational in seminars and disruptive in lectures. It is suggested that they hinder not just their own learning but that of their female classmates too.

Even relatively mild-mannered male students are considered to dominate seminars in a way that silences female voices. For some lecturers, it seems, the presence of men in their classroom is a particular challenge to be managed, rather than simply being part and parcel of the often mundane experience of teaching.

Often, when male students are not being laddish they are still seen as a problem for universities. They are less likely to attend tutorials, seek their tutor’s advice or engage with academic mentoring programmes. When things go wrong either on their course or in their personal lives, young men tend to keep their problems to themselves or discuss them with friends rather than using institutional support services or professional counsellors. As a result, they are more likely than women to drop out of university altogether, or, if they stay the course, leave with a lower degree classification.

The perception of young men as a problem stretches beyond the classroom and across campus. The National Union of Students, following the example of academics working in this area, is leading a crusade against lad culture. Not only do such campaigns demonise men, but they encourage women students, despite comprising an ever-increasing majority of the student body, to see themselves as intimidated by the beer and banter-fuelled antics of men and victims of a “rape culture”.

One of the saddest conversations I have had in recent months was with a young woman in her first year at university who told me she was too afraid to leave her hall of residence to go to the library alone after dark. Her fears were out of all proportion to the statistical likelihood of her being attacked or raped. Decades ago she would have been kept inside as a result of patronising and paternalistic curfews. Today, this student suffered a self-imposed curfew because she had taken seriously those telling her the campus was in the grip of a rape culture.

Such groundless panics have real consequences. At the London School of Economics, the rugby club was banned after its members were accused of “misogynistic, sexist and homophobic” behaviour. Some universities now make attendance at “good lad workshops” compulsory for members of sports teams. Other universities offer classes in sexual consent and again, attendance can sometimes be made compulsory. Whatever the intention of such workshops, it is hard not to take away the message that all men are potential rapists and all women victims-in-waiting.

At best, it seems male students are considered a problem to be managed. At worst they are demonised as a threat to the safety of women. It should come as little surprise then if young men choose to vote with their feet and decide that university is not for them.

At the moment it can appear as if many educational researchers and commentators respond to the under-representation of men with thinly veiled relief. For the sake of all students we need to challenge this emerging consensus.

Joanna Williams is the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity and the education editor of Spiked.

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