Ella Whelan

Why is the government taking the NUS’s ‘lad culture’ survey seriously?

Why is the government taking the NUS's 'lad culture' survey seriously?
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You thought starting university was meant to be fun? Think again. A new league table, published in time for freshers' week 2016, ranks universities on the basis of their local crime rate. The Complete University Guide has published the results, alongside a guide to ‘sexism on campus’, which gives students tips on how to scope out their university’s attitude to sexism and sexual harassment. But as the survey points out, official data for crime specifically against students is not available, so these figures are chosen because they relate to crimes 'most likely to affect students'.

The growing panic about sexual violence on campus is based on various reports published by the National Union of Students (NUS). The most recent claimed that ‘50pc of study participants identified "prevailing sexism, 'laddism' and a culture of harassment” at their universities'. The report was written by the director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex, Alison Phipps, and research associate Isabel Young. Titled ‘That’s What She Said’, it featured interviews with just ‘40 women students across the UK’. Yet it claims to present hard evidence about the ‘social, personal and educational impacts of lad culture in higher education’. The report was able to produce shocking statistics by asking participants to answer broad questions about everything from unwanted chat-up lines to actual sexual assault.

‘Hidden Marks’, the original report on rape-culture produced by the NUS, claimed that 7pc of students had experienced serious sexual assault. Here's something to note about Hidden Marks though: it was produced as an online survey taken by 2,058 self-selecting students - most likely circulated among students interested in the topic. Out of the 7pc whose experiences supposedly signalled 'rape culture’, 40pc said the perpetrator was not a student and only 10pc of the victims reported the attack to the police. In other words, the majority of the very small amount of students who participated in the survey had originally viewed their experiences as insignificant enough to manage without the authorities. 'That's What She Said' used the spurious results of 'Hidden Marks' to create a quasi-manifesto calling for intervention into female students' personal lives, supposedly grounded in an analysis of 'lad culture'.

Terrifyingly, these poorly evidenced claims about sexism on campus could soon impact how our universities are run. In a letter sent to all university vice-chancellors, Sajid Javid has demanded that each institution ‘set up a taskforce to investigate the “sexual and verbal assault” against women on campus and develop a code of practice for dealing with incidents’. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Javid said he would 'not rule out legislation to stamp out the problem'. Yet many universities and student unions already have policies that restrict behaviour on campus; ‘Zero Tolerance’, 'Safe Space’ and ‘Harassment and Bullying’ policies are all common and aim to protect vulnerable students from offensive words and daft behaviour. What would an even more intrusive code of practice look like?

Javid cited the unreliable statistics produced by the NUS ‘which found that almost two-thirds of women undergraduates or graduates said that while at university they had been assaulted either verbally or non-verbally, including groping and flashing’. He says he is concerned for his daughter's safety when she goes to university. What the business secretary should be more concerned about is the fact that female students are being scared unnecessarily by student officials' blown-up stats and anti-lad agitation.

It's odd that a cabinet minister is now suggesting institutional changes on the basis of such a small, biased and inflammatory report. Most student union officials will admit that it is nearly impossible to attract the minimum number of students necessary to vote on union motions, and most professors will tell you that getting students to fill in the National Student Survey at the end of the academic year is a herculean task. So I find it extremely hard to believe that the NUS survey into sexism on campus managed to pull together a wide-ranging and impartial group of participants who might reliably reflect the true feeling on campus with regards to sexism, rape and sexual assault.

This means that the unsubstantiated whims of a few women’s officers are now being taken seriously by government.  Javid is wrong. We need to tell young women that the NUS is their worst enemy, hell-bent on telling them how to have sex, how to talk to boys and how to interact with their fellow students in the right way. Free-thinking young women should ignore this moral panic.