Gender Studies in the ‘Starbucks’ University

By: Ruth Holliday

Author Note: Ruth Holliday is Professor of Gender and Culture at Leeds University, a Cultural Sociologist, and a UCU NEC representative for the North-East region.

Despite the manufactured panic about ‘woke’ subjects like Critical Race Theory and ‘Critical Marxism’ as imagined threats to the free speech of academics everywhere, Gender Studies – and other ‘minoritized’ subjects – are caught in a perfect storm of reforms to higher education that may see them permanently erased from the curriculum. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has simply banned Gender Studies, but in the UK it is suffering death by a thousand cuts. I will take Gender Studies as an example, but the same trends apply to ‘race’, sexuality, disability and other dimensions of identity inequalities and ‘minoritized’ subjects.

A space to discuss feminism and gender in the university was hard won. In Sociology, for instance, Marxist approaches to social class were a staple of degree programmes, but Feminists had to battle established canons consisting almost entirely of white men (in Sociology ‘the boys and DuBois’) to find a space for gender in the curriculum. Additionally, feminist approaches suffered accusations of political bias when challenging dominant theories of the ‘universal human subject’, unconsciously based on the ‘rational’ and ‘independent’ white, heterosexual male breadwinner. Feminists challenged these traditional viewpoints as ‘partial’, in that they saw only part of the picture and as being politically aligned with the gendered status quo. Feminists also brought the ‘private sphere’ to academic study, focusing on sexual and domestic violence, women’s work, and, of course, the gendered division of labour in housework and childcare. Later, Gender Studies also became the site for research and education on sexualities and gender identities; intersections of gender with ‘race’, class, and disabilities; and major challenges to conventional ‘scientific’ research methods.

However, at a moment when public interest in gender is resurgent and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is being “promoted”, even by senior university managers, it is disappearing from the student ‘offer’ (degree programmes) at an alarming rate. Some say this is political – part of the government’s culture war on universities — but most likely it will become the casualty of significant shifts in the ‘business’ of higher education, and it will take a conscious effort by Vice Chancellors to save it. The new threats to Gender Studies and other ‘minoritized’ subjects are:

Increased Workload

Despite the tensions between academics who accuse activists of over-simplifying issues and activists who accuse academics of over-complicating them, Gender Studies has always been political. This means academics in universities rarely want to simply describe the world – they want to change it. Gender Studies departments work for the emancipation of women, queer, trans and non-binary people, and try to include intersections with other identities in all of our work (though in reality multiple experts are needed to do this). Gender studies teaching is also politicizing. It is consciousness raising. It points out unfairness in the world. This makes Gender Studies academics hugely exploitable. Up and down the country courses have been kept afloat by lecturers from different disciplines freely giving their time to lecture on their specialist area of gender expertise on interdisciplinary gender studies MA courses. And, in turn, Gender Studies courses have welcomed ‘auditing’ PhD students from all over the university who are keen to study ‘gender and’ their own discipline.  However, rapidly rising workloads, often rooted in cuts to internally funded research time, mean that lecturers increasingly have no time – or research – to offer. And this will be hugely exacerbated if planned government cuts to humanities and social sciences are implemented.

The REF / Teaching & Research Posts Lost

The success or otherwise of university research is now judged on its ‘impact’ outside the university as much as its quality in academic terms. Theoretical subjects like Gender Studies struggle to demonstrate these kinds of impacts, as defined within the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – it will be very interesting to see the gender balance of impact case studies submitted to REF once this information becomes available. How does one make an impact in  ‘gender’ when, as we know, gender equality is sliding backwards – especially under the conditions of austerity and Covid-19 when service work has been decimated and women have been ‘sent back to the home’ to care for children during lockdowns?

Each university department must submit one case study for every five staff entered. So universities have been busy hiring new PhD graduates on teaching fellowships or teaching-only lectureships (excepting them from REF and thereby reducing the number of impact case studies required) who must take on higher teaching loads than traditional lecturers. In the longer term this will lead to a two-tier system of academic staff – those on permanent contracts who earn significant external income from their research and those who teach but are not paid to do research – accompanied by a downward spiral of research activity and divorcing individual research enthusiasms from classroom learning. Some students are acutely aware they are being taught by (often exhausted) casualized workers who are continuously moved from subject area to subject area to satisfy ‘student demand’ and staffing gaps. Others don’t recognize this, and are positively evaluate their increasingly homogenized ‘student experience’ – which ultimately garners their universities better metrics from students than being ‘challenged’. Never mind that many new academics ‘burn out’, because a ready supply of recent PhD graduates means that all are replaceable. Research quality also suffers under this model because it is far easier to secure funding for a project that is much like the applicant’s previous project than it is to secure funding for something new or innovative. Often the most innovative research comes from new academics and unexpected collaborations seeing a problem with fresh eyes.


Most significantly, in many UK universities, ‘home students’ simply do not pay for themselves, especially at postgraduate level where fees are often lower. Instead of providing specialist MAs in which students ‘extend’ their knowledge in an area that inspired them at undergraduate level, MAs are increasingly being designed with international markets in mind. Respectable numbers for an MA cohort, until five years ago, were anything from ten to twenty-five. Now, in universities with high league table positions, MAs are more likely to have 150 to 250 students – almost exclusively international – and home MA and undergraduate students are being cut back to make way for this more lucrative market. Selling MAs to this cohort means developing more generic programmes with broad appeal that can accommodate students with diverse disciplinary backgrounds (the workload of getting the bulk of this cohort successfully to roughly masters standard in one year whilst studying in a second language is enormous – yet, of course, unrecognized). Suddenly, next to a huge international programme, a mixture of 20 home / EU / international students looks like wasted effort. Small (by comparison) programmes like Gender Studies will inevitably soon be pulled – as is happening, for example, at Chester. And this is tragic, because teaching a traditional MA in your specialist subject is a way for academics to engage in high-level discussions, test out research ideas, and inspire MA students to go on to PhD study. The relationship between teaching and research is not just ‘research-led-teaching’, it is also ‘teaching-led-research’. Many of my publications have been inspired by classroom discussions.

“Computer Says No”

A final threat to gender studies – and other ‘minoritized’ teaching – comes from administrative computer systems currently on the market. At many universities there have been repeated initiatives to cut the number of modules offered by each department. Initially the rationale given for this was ‘saving staff time’, but it quickly became apparent that pushing students through more generic modules less tailored to their interests created a lot more work for academics and annoyed students who wanted ‘choice’ as ‘consumers’ of higher education. The rationale then changed – if one academic taught a module on their specialism, and they were run over by a bus or (even less likely) went on study leave, who would teach their module? Instead, generic modules and ‘flexible staff’ would make for smoother running and standardized quality of degree programmes. But the latest reason given for rearranging university courses, is that computer systems favoured in the UK HE sector cannot accommodate so many modules and programmes. So modules (and programmes) are being cancelled everywhere to fit administrative systems.

Smaller modules are being cut first, followed by modules that are seen as ‘less central to the programme’ – often minoritized modules on gender, sexualities, and ‘race’. I use ‘minoritized’ here not only because gender modules can be smaller than mainstream ones, but also because gender modules often focus on women, whose interests (despite being the interests of around 51% of the population) are still characterized as ‘minority issues’. ‘Minoritized’ also signals the marginal and low status given to studies of gender, feminism and sexualities. Gender Studies has been minoritized by the advent of industrial-scale international masters programmes each generating millions of pounds, which reduce other masters programmes to a ‘cottage industry’, but Gender Studies is also disappearing from undergraduate programmes because of the rationalization of both staff and modules. Starbucks universities have given up on single-origin, Fairtrade, direct-from-the-grower coffee beans in favour of limited variations of the ‘house blend’.

As a Gender Studies academic I have witnessed the decline of my field. Departments and programmes closed, departing professors whose posts remain unfilled or replaced by temporary or teaching-only staff, modules cancelled, programmes ‘paused’. Gender, sexuality, sex-work and so on are being quietly eased out of the curriculum. This is the reality of modern-day university staffing and ‘provision’: even as equalities are lauded by Vice Chancellors, equality and diversity is being erased from the curriculum.


In this business model of education we are undoubtedly witnessing the growth of hard-nosed ‘macho-management’ where honour is accrued by taking ‘tough decisions’ and Gender Studies is a ‘soft target’. Whilst EDI managers are likely to be women, senior managers or managers of highly valued areas of business like research are still mostly men, and women in universities continue to be problematized through ‘Dress for Success’ courses or ‘Assertiveness Training’. EDI information is now being recorded, along with gender pay gaps, and applications for the Athena Swan ‘logo’ are increasing. But, like most other things in universities, even EDI has been reduced to a metric, in which, as with staff-student ratios, Vice Chancellors are content to be ‘middle of the pack’ (this is a direct quote from one former VC). Universities are no longer places where equalities are seen as ethically important. Just as university managers are not ashamed when entire sections of their ranks are populated only by white men, so they feel no shame in defunding Gender Studies. Equalities are just one more metric / logo / branding to be managed in league-table juxtapositions, whilst political thought that would actually challenge and transform society is being cut. Metrication goes hand in hand with de-intellectualization, it seems.

If Gender Studies – and other ‘minoritized’ programmes – are to survive this new marketized academia, and universities are to avoid their ‘Starbucksificaton’ – in which all students are offered an identically pleasant (rather than challenging) ‘experience’ in the educational equivalent of a branded coffee chain – it will take a conscious commitment from senior managers to make that happen. Part of me still hopes that this commitment is there.


Like all UCU Commons activities, this blog encompasses much collective effort. I would like to thank Leon Rocha, Ben Pope, Ben Purvis, Matilda Fitzmaurice and David Hitchcock for their help and input.

References (Links embedded in paragraph 2)

  1. haraway-situated-knowledges.pdf (
  2. Silvia Federici, “Wages Against Housework” | caring labor: an archive (
  3. Gender trouble. Feminism and the subversion of identity (
  4. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics (
  5. Digital-Feminist Rhetoric – Harding, Sandra. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking from Women’s Lives. New York: Cornell University Press, 1991. Print. ([RH3] 

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