Bindi bans, teetotallers and ‘revolutionary socialists’: When did university become so serious?

Shagging and getting pissed? That’s so 2006

2011, Fresh Meat had first aired and university seemed like three years of pill popping, beer goggles and questionable decisions. Your older sibling’s friends talked knowingly at you about “the most fun you’ll ever have” and said “first year doesn’t even count”.

Cut to 2016. Fresh Meat has ended. British students now finish in more debt than American ones and you’re more likely to hear about students campaigning to ban racist Sombreros than throwing up into them at 3am.

To get an idea of the scope of the change, take a look at ‘F*Ck ME! It’s Freshers!’: an annual freshers’ party that took place at university cities including Cardiff, Bristol and Birmingham. It promoted its events with videos featuring women dancers dressed in black corsets, bob tails and bunny ears. There hasn’t been an event since 2013. You can see why. An event which gives out free T-shirts saying ‘F*CK ME! It’s Freshers!’ and objectifies women so blatantly, would almost certainly face massive backlash in 2016.

Then there is The Guardian’s 2012 freshers’ week ‘Survival Guide’, organised neatly in a ‘problem’, ‘solution’ format. Under the ‘sex’ subheading, students will find relatable ‘problems’ such as: “You will become drunk and touch someone.” Fast forward to 2016, where universities such as Cambridge are holding compulsory consent classes, it’s hard to imagine a national newspaper, especially a liberal one, publishing something which trivialises drunken sex in this way.

Bye, bye, bindi

Not to forget the fate of Exeter’s notorious Safer Sex Ball, a night out involving going out in your underwear under the premise of raising money for charity. Once organised by their Students’ Union, it used to be the highlight of the student calendar. It was cancelled in 2013 after two students were filmed having sex in public during the event. Although it made a comeback the following year independent of the Students’ Union, it hasn’t come close to its former popularity.

Sex at university has become a serious issue it seems. Are students themselves bringing about this change in attitude though? George Lawlor, a Warwick student who has criticised consent classes, argues it’s students’ unions, not the wider student population, who are driving this change.

“Consent classes exist because those involved with students’ unions believe they should. Most students, especially the largely non-political, don’t think they’re necessary. They think they’re patronising and ineffective. The people who do push for consent classes are just a relatively small group of like-minded politicos.”

Whether you agree with their aims or not, students’ unions and pressure groups within them do seem to take the lead in politicising ‘fun’ events, rather than the wider student population. Take the example of Pangaea: a student-led festival of music held three times a year at the University of Manchester. The September 2015 edition’s theme was ‘Neverland’. Organisers in coordination with the Black and Minority Ethnic Students Campaign (BME MCR) banned Native American headdresses and bindis from the festival, due to concerns about cultural appropriation.

A year earlier the theme had been ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. Despite the theme allowing for fancy dress choices that culturally appropriate as easily as the 2015 one, no ban was put in place. Ironically, a guy wearing a Native American headdress features in a Facebook album uploaded by Pangaea festival, promoting the 2014 event.

Nevertheless, students elect their student exec teams. Perhaps by taking the lead in organising consent classes or banning garments that culturally appropriate, they’re just representing the changing views of the student population. BME MCR was repeatedly contacted for their view on this issue but they did not reply.

I spoke to Kirsty Ross, 21, a final year Maths student at Cardiff University. She thought the change in seriousness of university culture did stem from students’ unions, citing the banning of comedian Dapper Laughs in 2014 from Cardiff SU for his sexist stand-up routines and the petition to ban Germaine Greer from campus for her comments about transgender people. Both campaigns were organised by members of Cardiff’s student exec team.

“I do think that unis are becoming more serious, for example on tackling lad culture which seems to be at the forefront of many unis’ agendas, and this wasn’t the case a few years ago.”

The petition against Greer argued that she should be no-platformed, in order to protect trans students from her “problematic and hateful views”. In effect, a safe space should be created for trans students. Students’ unions’ safe space policies have received extensive coverage in the media in the last few years,  giving the impression that they have mass student support.

In 2015, Manchester Students’ Union banned feminist Julie Bindel and right-wing journalist Milo Yiannopoulos from the union. Bindel was banned for her “comments towards trans people,” Yiannopoulos for his “comments lambasting rape survivors and trans people,” said the SU.

Edgar Haener, a committee member of Manchester’s Free Speech and Secular Society which organised the debate said he wasn’t convinced that the ban reflected the views of most students.

“It is very much dependent on the current executive. Two years ago, a very agreeable General Secretary looked for compromise. Last year, a more militant Woman’s Officer was intent on stymieing certain events.

“Last year’s implementation was vast and quite arbitrary, so there is probably a majority [of students] against such an expansive interpretation.”

Not all students have suddenly become politicised then, but some have undoubtedly become more vocal. Whether it’s a cardboard cut-out of Margaret Thatcher being decapitated by self-confessed “revolutionary Socialists” at a Freshers’ Fair, middle-class students who wear vintage sports brands being criticised for fetishising working class culture, or chav themed socials being attacked for appropriating it, ‘fun’ at university in 2016 is a political issue.

Does fun in its previously debauched incarnation even exist at UK universities anymore? Maybe not. According to statistics, students are going out less and drinking less. Since 2005, more than 1,400 clubs have closed in the UK and between 2005 and 2013 the number of 16-24 year olds drinking dropped by a third. Cardiff student Kirsty says that she has seen a change in attitude amongst other students towards their health and fitness.

“There are so many people in lectures with their freshly made blended active smoothies. University cafés now sell quinoa and kale, which was not very big when I first came. And a lot more students are going down the vegetarian or vegan route.”

It’s not like university culture becoming more serious is a bad thing either. Consent, respect for minorities and health are all important issues. The people who once criticised students’ apathy and binge drinking culture must be eating their words. The cause? Who knows. But maybe the rise in tuition fees in 2012 kicked it all off. You can’t really see university as a frivolous three years of deferred life, when you’ll be paying for it for the next 30 years.