This year’s freshers' week line-up is filled with the standard fare; comedy, DJs and a night of nostalgic pop punk. The only thing that’s missing is a woman. Of the advertised evening headline acts, not a single one is female. Somehow, in the weeks of hard work organising Freshers’ Week takes, booking a female act slipped the minds of the two University unions’ board members. This is sadly indicative of our unions’ failure to remember their purpose, to represent the students, in their endeavour to compete with privately owned clubs and venues.
It’s rather apt that the GUU has branded their Freshers’ programme the GUU 'freshtival'. The gender disparity of their line up certainly has a lot in common with the inequality that plagues the UK’s festivals. In the months leading up to the festival season, edited images of line ups were widely circulated on social media. The line ups had been edited to omit every all male act. The results were distressingly sparse. Reading and Leeds were left with only nine acts across the entire weekend. 90% of the Isle of Wight’s Bestival’s line up was male with the figure rising to 96% for Download Festival, a rock music festival in Leicestershire. If the same editing process were applied to the 'freshtival' line up, no acts would be left to perform. The 'freshtival' also includes comedy, specifically Foil, Arms and Hog, an all male comedy trio hailing from Dublin. The GUU are not the only offenders; 22 University Gardens is set to an identically gendered line up. The QMU have eschewed a comedy evening this year, opting to return to their musical roots. A new 'pop punk' club night is being trialled along with a night of performances from local bands - all of them male.
In keeping with Freshers’ Weeks past, several of the evening headline slots are occupied by 'big name' DJs. Scott Mills, That Drummer that DJ, Matt Edmondson and Pendulum; an impressive list, depending on your feelings towards Radio 1, drum and bass designed for PA systems in Topshop and another all male bill. Again, the unions’ programme reflects those of large mainstream festivals. Creamfields, the UK’s biggest electronic and dance music festival this year had a line up which was 97% male.
The extent to which Glasgow’s Freshers’ Week line-up mirrors the problems of festival lineups the nation over is troubling. One may be tempted to shift the blame from the organisers of Freshers’ Week and instead point to the industry. After all, it is from the country’s biggest stages that trends and unfortunately in this case, prejudices trickle down – from the Pyramid Stage to Qudos. Of course, both the GUU and the QMU are entertainment businesses and immunity from the habits of the industry is impossible. However, unions forget their primary function at their peril – to represent the student body.
UCAS statistics show that for another year, young women are set to outnumber their male peers at university by not such an insignificant margin. It is safe to assume that at the very least, half of the audience the unions are catering for will be female. So why not reflect this in their line up? Over half of students, for whom Freshers’ Week is presumably tailored, will see no act which represents them. It’s true of course that students who have not ventured far from the family home will see local bands who sing in familiar accents and sing of familiar towns and circumstances and this is worth celebrating. Generally speaking however, a woefully high number of freshers are totally unrepresented in 2015’s line up.
Student unions nationwide are competing with clubs and venues which have much bigger cash flows, far slicker promotional campaigns and less sticky floors. They will do little good for neither themselves nor students if they emulate these clubs and their line ups. What student unions can, and should, offer students is representation, safe spaces and equality – along with £2 pints and foam parties. It is by differentiating themselves from the clubs of West Regent Street that our unions will survive. By offering something fresh and something that reflects the student body itself, our unions will fulfill their potential.
Of course, we can’t know the ins and outs of this year’s booking process. Perhaps both unions tried incredibly hard to book a female act but timing, budgeting and logistics simply didn’t allow for a single female act to perform. That is a possibility, but in one of the UK’s biggest cities with a globally renowned music and arts scene, it feels a rather distant one.
If equality in the arts can’t begin on Britain’s university campuses, where can it? Universities are, or at least ought to be, places of intellectual development, debate and social change. We need our student unions to be trailblazers for equality and progressiveness in the arts and across the spectrum – not Viper 2.0. Our student unions can’t continue operating as glorified pubs and clubs with a couple of committees or open mic nights attached. Perhaps once they remember how to represent the student body and reflect them in their event planning, their fortunes will start to turn.