Women at universities have the right to feel physically safe and intellectually unconfined. Photo: Getty
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Universities won’t be a safe place for women until they’re a safe place for feminism

If feminism cannot engage in a critical analysis of gender and sexual objectification then feminists can only ever be on the defensive.

In 2004, Angela McRobbie wrote a piece for Feminist Media Studies in which she discussed young women, feminism and sexual empowerment. In it she argued that “the new female subject is, despite her freedom, called upon to be silent, to withhold critique, to count as a modern sophisticated girl, or indeed this critique is a condition of her freedom”:

There is quietude and complicity in the manners of generationally specific notions of cool, and more precisely an uncritical relation to dominant commercially produced sexual representations which actively invoke hostility to assumed feminist positions from the past in order to endorse a new regime of sexual meanings based on female consent, equality, participation and pleasure, free of politics.

At the time, I disliked the piece intensely, first because I saw nothing wrong with “a new regime of sexual meanings […] free of politics” (it still sounds pretty cool), and second because I hadn’t really read the piece, just read about it. As a young-ish woman leaving university, having done my best to embrace Nineties and Noughties retrosexism, I objected to what I just knew was the patronising idea that I had no agency and could not enjoy sex in the same way men could. The notion that, fun sex or no, there might still be a power imbalance requiring critique was alien to me. All I saw was some prudish old biddy telling me off.

 A decade later, the piece means something different to me, and not just because I am now some prudish old biddy telling other women off (or rather, once you’re past a certain age, that’s the role you’re automatically shoved into). It’s only now I can look back on my time at university and admit to myself that I didn’t really feel safe. It’s not that I feel ashamed of anything I did or didn’t do; I just wish I had been able to feel bigger and stronger and bolder. I wish I’d noticed the way men encroached on my space and, instead of seeing any challenges to male sexual entitlement as heartless inter-feminist slut-shaming, I’d thought a little harder about whether broader structures did in fact need fixing.  The reason I couldn’t do this is because, ironically, I was too scared. I was “called upon to be silent” and “to withhold critique”; I didn’t know all the things I couldn’t say because I never even tried to say them. 

It’s a kind of self-monitoring, an internalised backlash that prevents you from having to engage with how bad things are. All the same, however bad things were for female students then, it seems they are worse now. Time was when male students at least pretended they knew they were being sexist and that it was all some joke; today, as the NUS’s “That’s what she said” study and other reports of on-campus sexism indicate, the atmosphere is altogether harsher and more openly misogynistic. While membership of student feminist organisations is growing and more and more women are speaking out, it feels like a losing battle. Male entitlement shows no sign of abating and to make matters worse, it has become more and more difficult to pinpoint why this is happening, as an increasing number of feminist concepts are declared off-limits.

The work of feminism ought to be cumulative, self-correcting, self-critical, repetitive, doing whatever is necessary to make women’s lives safe and valued. Instead, it seems to me we are stuck in an endless cycle of reinvention, hurling more and more ideas onto the scrapheap in the hope that they, and not actual oppression, turn out to be the problem we were dealing with all along. In the Nineties and Noughties any critique of objectification led to charges of slut-shaming; now, any critique of male sexual entitlement and gender itself leads to charges of whore- and transphobia. Watching all the “bad”, discarded feminisms pile up can create an illusion of progress – finally we’ll hit on the right one! – but it is a distraction. It disregards intersectional critiques of structural oppression in favour of blanket notions of inclusion which leave women without politics and back where they started (to quote de Beauvoir, as “only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity”).

In such a climate feminist academics need to tread carefully. After all, who wants to be the subject of a change.org petition demanding that one’s work is not published or named and shamed on twitter?  As the academic Delilah Campbell writes, “the idea that certain aspects of women’s experience or oppression are not shared by trans women […] gets labelled hate speech”. Even if there is no immediate consequence to this, it’s an accusation to avoid if you’re jumping from one temporary contract to the next, relying not just on your intellect but on whether your face will “fit” in any new faculty. Moreover, accusations against “bad” feminists have become increasingly outlandish. In the past you might have been called a slut-shamer or judgmental. More recently you’d have been accused of denying someone’s agency. And now? Now, in addition to all this, you could be blamed for male violence, even if that is something you’ve spent your whole life challenging. The distinction between critiquing a system and reinforcing it has been utterly – and deliberately, I think – blurred, and it’s not just students but women of all ages and classes who are losing out. 

At a time when they desperately need it, women are being denied the language to articulate their experiences. An NUS LGBT campaign that’s prepared to single out one feminist as “vile” is sending a message to all students regarding the consequences of speaking out of turn: it’s just not worth the risk. While it is easy to pretend that there is a clear line between male sexual entitlement and a culture in thrall to sexualisation, objectification and gender categorisation, this simply isn’t true. No amount of agency, choice or self-definition will form a protective shield around the female body. It doesn’t work like that.

If feminism cannot engage in a critical analysis of gender and sexual objectification then feminists can only ever be on the defensive, plugging leaks here and there while wondering why the flood won’t recede. Involvement in feminist debate should not require an oath of allegiance to the commoditisation of female bodies, in exchange for which one might get the odd consent lesson for all those men who, funnily enough, still feel entitled to female flesh. In today’s universities female students are being held to ransom not just by braying rugby lads, but by male students who believe gender-nonconformity is compatible with continuing to police women’s physical space and intellectual boundaries thanks to the acronyms SWERF and TERF. It’s hyper-conservative behaviour beneath a thin veneer of rebellion – perhaps a slick of lip gloss, but nothing so daring as thinking women have the right to question the very structures that hold them down.

Female students have a right to feel physically safe and intellectually unconfined, yet instead they find themselves intellectually restricted and physically exposed. A greater priority is accorded to dressing up conservative ideology in postmodern clothing than to enabling women to think for themselves. What better way to limit a young woman’s potential, just at the point where it should be expanding? What better way of weakening powers which, if permitted to flourish, just might change the world?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com