Study calls for new approach to tackle student 'lad culture' in higher education

Our education experts are calling for a new approach to tackle so-called ‘lad-culture’ in UK higher education following a pioneering study which explored the attitudes of university staff to the problem.

The results have paved the way for new thinking around an issue that has prompted student protests and campus campaigns across the country.

“There was so much about lad culture in the media,” explains Dr Vanita Sundaram from our Centre for Research on Education and Social Justice, “and the vast majority was from the student perspective. Research by the National Union of Students, for example, has uncovered lots of examples of gender-specific harassment and violence among students. We decided to look at it from a staff perspective and we were the first in the UK to do so.”

The issue has been highlighted in the UK media including stories of ‘slut dropping’ (where male students offer women lifts home after night-time socials but leave them stranded miles from home), and sexually-based student initiation ceremonies.

Staff perspective

In 2014 Dr Sundaram and Professor Carolyn Jackson from Lancaster University received funding from the Society for Research into Higher Education to gather data on lad culture from the staff perspective at six English universities.

“We found that lad culture is evident across all six institutions and that most staff are aware of it,” says Dr Sundaram. “Examples cited included sexist language and demeaning behaviour towards women students – and, in a few instances, towards female staff.

“But we also discovered that not all staff consider it to be problematic. Some see laddish behaviour as a ‘pack phenomenon’, where young men ‘take a joke too far’. Some staff think it can even have beneficial effects for the young men themselves, giving some male students ‘confidence’ and a ‘sense of belonging’ to a group.

“Finally, we found that none of the six universities involved in the study have any explicit policies to deal with the issue.”

Dr Sundaram is now calling for this to change, and believes that using a charter mark could help. She cites the example of the Athena SWAN Charter, administered by the Equality Challenge Unit. It is awarded to university departments that demonstrate commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine.

A powerful message

“Funders are saying to science departments that they have to have an Athena SWAN award to be eligible for funding,” says Dr Sundaram. “That’s a powerful message, and I’d like to see the criteria for the award extended to include efforts to tackle sexist culture in general.”

Dr Sundaram knows at first hand the impact that such an award can have on the culture of a department. In 2014 our Department of Education became the first Education department in the country to win the Gender Equality Charter Mark. Also set up by the Equality Challenge Unit, this award recognises efforts to address gender inequalities and imbalance in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

“In our Department, this award really made us think about what we actually do. What processes did we have in place? What was the culture of our Department really like? What policies did we have if, for example, someone put up sexist posters in the building? Or if someone used homophobic language in our classrooms?”

Early in 2015, the Equality Challenge Unit announced that it was merging the Athena SWAN award with the Gender Equality Charter Mark. Dr Sundaram believes this represents an opportunity. She would like to see the criteria of the new award expanded beyond quantitative measures of gender inequality and imbalance to include a commitment to combatting sexist culture in all its forms. She would also like to see funders taking the award of the charter mark into account when selecting which departments and institutions to support.


“I think it would be a great incentive for departments to be able to show funders, parents and students that they offer a safe and supportive place to study. Perhaps it could even be awarded at institutional level too, if the institution can show that they are tackling the problem across campus.”

To add weight to their call, Dr Sundaram and Professor Jackson are planning to roll out their research more widely, to gather data from both students and staff and gain a better definition of what constitutes lad culture. They would also like to explore equivalent phenomena overseas.

For now, though, Dr Sundaram’s priority is finding a way to tackle lad culture in UK academic institutions: “Tackling lad culture is a key means of recognising and challenging gender inequality. It is vital that institutions understand this as a gender issue in order to understand and effectively deal with the impact on women students and staff in particular.”

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Some see laddish behaviour as a ‘pack phenomenon’”

Dr Vanita Sundaram
Centre for Research on Education and Social Justice
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Dr Vanita Sundaram

Research interests include the educational experiences of marginalised pupils and pupils outside mainstream education and gender inequality in education.

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