Alison Phipps, University of Sussex



Image by Serena Cheung 

In early February this year, students at Sussex University occupied the campus conference centre in protest against the outsourcing of key services such as catering and estates management. This action, which ended in eviction 55 days later, was part of the broader political movement opposed to privatisation in the higher education sector, with institutions such as London Met and Falmouth also criticised for using private firms to provide non-teaching services. In November 2012, the University of Central Lancashire became the first public university to apply to become a private company (these plans were dropped in April 2013). In March this year, the National Union of Students released a report on ‘lad culture’ in higher education, written by myself and Isabel Young. In our qualitative study of this phenomenon we theorised it as partly as a defensive response against women’s perceived success, and found that the sexism and misogyny which underpinned it could spill over into sexual harassment and violence (National Union of Students 2013). This was corroborated by the 2010 Hidden Marks report, a survey conducted by NUS which found that 1 in 7 university women had experienced serious sexual or physical violence during their studies, and 68 percent had been sexually harassed (National Union of Students 2010).


I believe that the privatisation of higher education and the student misogyny uncovered in these studies, while seemingly separate, both reflect the economistic and masculinist frameworks pervading our campuses. Neoliberalism is a value system in which the economic has replaced the intellectual and political, and in which the concerns of the competitive, rational individual predominate over those of the collective. UK higher education is a rapidly neoliberalising sector: instrumentalised as merely a source of skills supply, with competitive markets both between and within institutions and a positioning of students as consumers of a packaged product, in workplaces in which collegial democracy has made way for top-down managerial control, the drive to generate income and achieve ‘efficiency’ often takes precedence over questions of academic value, and teaching and student support budgets can be diverted into marketing (Matthews 2013). There is also an encroachment of for-profit providers into the UK sector, supported by government (Richardson 2011) – similar developments in the US have led to lawsuits over misleading recruitment and bullying of staff, and a drop in academic quality as badly-paid and poorly-trained staff race through courses in order to maximise student turnover (Crotty 2012).


It is easy to see how such values, as well as shaping curriculum content, could scaffold and exacerbate a competitive culture among young people which intersects with the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’. In this context, high-achieving young women are a threat and ‘laddism’ a means to put them in their place through sexism, misogyny and a variety of activities including sports initiations and ‘fuck a fresher’ contests. This also evokes recent debates about the ‘sexualisation’ of youth cultures (Epstein et al 2012), but sex is not the main problem here – it is the aggression which underpins ‘laddish’ behaviours and practices, which mirrors the principles now shaping our universities. ‘Laddism’ pre-dates neoliberalism – some theorists argue that it is a form of behaviour which has come and gone over centuries (Beynon 2002). But it also emerges in response to prevailing social conditions, often a reply to threats to male privilege, and is a phenomenon which could easily be nurtured by the rather callous environment of the contemporary higher education sector. The hierarchies of masculinity it creates could also exacerbate violence between men, and a generalised atmosphere of competition, in which the privileged feel at risk, could intensify racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist and other forms of violence (symbolic and physical) amongst students of all genders.


The increasing neoliberalisation of UK higher education also threatens difficulties for students who wish to speak out about experiences of violence. In the US, where higher education markets are well established and despite a legislative framework which mandates the publication of campus crime statistics, institutions have been strongly criticised for covering up violence and crime, or encouraging students to drop complaints, in order to preserve reputation in a highly competitive field (Sack 2013). The positioning of students as consumers of an educational product is somewhat unevenly applied: it is common for students who experience violence to drop out of their studies due to institutional reluctance to take action against perpetrators, who then go on to complete their degrees. Furthermore, privatisation of essential services such as campus security and student support and counselling may mean a drop in quality as cost-effectiveness takes precedence, and also predicts the provision of more generic services which are not responsive to students’ specific needs. Finally, the developing ‘pressure-cooker culture’ amongst academics (Grove 2012) is already creating an individualism which may mean that we turn a blind eye while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst). Taken together, these factors suggest that students who do experience violence may not be well looked after. Research has also shown that students who experience institutional betrayal after violence suffer the most trauma (Smith and Freyd 2013).


Sadly, the neoliberal values which may have intensified sexism and violence against our women students could also ensure that universities are less likely to do anything about it. Thankfully however, the anti-privatisation movement continues to build energy and momentum, as does the campaign against ‘lad culture’ spearheaded by NUS and involving Everyday Sexism, the Equality Challenge Unit and other organisations. In my opinion the two have much to gain from each other.



Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at Sussex University. You can find her academic profile at and follow her on Twitter at





Beynon, J (2002) Masculinities and Culture. Buckingham: Open University Press

Crotty, J. M (2012) ‘For-profit colleges thrashed in congressional report’, in, 2nd August 2012

Epstein, D, Kehily, M. J and Renold, E (2012) ‘Culture, policy and the un/marked child: fragments of the sexualisation debates’, in Gender and Education 24(3), 249-254

Grove, J (2012) ‘Stressed academics are ready to blow in pressure-cooker culture’, in Times Higher Education, 4th October 2012

Matthews, D (2013) ‘University student marketing spend up 22%’, in Times Higher Education, 7th February 2013

National Union of Students (2010) Hidden Marks: A study of women students’ experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault. London: National Union of Students

National Union of Students (2013) That’s what she said: Women students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ in higher education. London: National Union of Students

Richardson, H (2011) ‘David Willetts met for-profit university firms’, on BBC News 2nd October 2011

Sack, K (2012) ‘Reform campus rape policy to prevent complaints becoming a ‘second assault”, in The Observer 18th November 2012

Smith, C.P and Freyd, J.J (2013) ‘Dangerous Safe Havens: Institutional Betrayal Exacerbates Sexual Trauma’ in Journal of Traumatic Stress 26, 119-124