Freshers’ week: just a drunken scam?

An interesting view on freshers’ week

Libby Purves, writing in The Times, argues that freshers’ week is not quite what it seems and has to stop. The new fees regime, she suggests, may put an end to this “ghastly scam”.

These festivals are now in progress or revving up at most British universities; a weird, patronising blend of nannying and temptation, peer pressure and naked marketing. In the past 20 years they have grown into a mini industry aimed with increasing skill and cynicism at teenagers far from home, often for the first time, with unaccustomed money in their pockets.

Of course a “soft” launch to university has its uses. There have always been a few days when new students could find their way around, meet tutors and get passes and information. Without the academic pressure of full term it was a gently social time too. You would probably go to a ramshackle “freshers fair” where clubs and societies set out their stalls; with luck you’d have teamed up over Nescafé with someone from your corridor and giggled together about the hard-sell of stall holders pushing karate, Communism or the Christian Union (I joined the Anarchists’ Society, but gave up because they couldn’t organise meetings. Two quid down the drain).

Pretty much routine observations from someone recalling their own experience but then there are some really interesting comments on attempts to rein in some of the wilder excesses, to respond to the OTT bravado and tackle the “faint bullying tone” from older students. Recognition too that not everyone is the same:

Thus, a good proportion of ambitious, earnest, financially anxious 18-year-olds dislike it, but are made to feel inadequate and boring for doing so. They’d prefer something simpler; quiet, unpressured sociability and useful information. They have worked out that university is not a holiday camp. Foreign students are baffled: most European universities don’t have any such Saturnalia at the start of term. Perceptive spirits may also notice that the expansion of freshers week is fuelled not only by the enthusiasm of existing students, but by hard-nosed commercial exploitation.

A similar line was taken last year in a Guardian article by Patrick Collinson:

But freshers’ fairs have come a long way from the commercial innocence of earlier years. They offer Britain’s businesses “the perfect opportunity for you to enlighten students to your products and services”, according to BAM Student Marketing. “Get face to face with your potential customers … student spending habits have not been developed at this stage, which is why the freshers’ fairs provide excellent potential for forming new customer relationships,” it adds. BAM even provides the websites for scores of student unions (from Aston to York St John) through which it aims to offer “high traffic … to our clients”. Typical clients include insurance, ticketing and travel companies.

 

It is very difficult to argue for a more sober, academically focused transition to university life without looking like a dull, out of touch killjoy. But it’s not entirely fair to suggest it is the fault of “timid” universities for failing to tackle this. There is a real need to address the freshers’ week excess and to ensure a stronger academic and pastoral focus to this induction period. There are a lot of different interests at play here though, not just the external nightclubs and travel companies. Persuading the students’ union, student societies and academic staff that timetabled classes (if not teaching proper) should start as soon as new students arrive is a tall order. But something does need to happen, for all of the reasons Ms Purves suggests and then some. Training students to get used to the feeling of studying with a hangover and to being the target of those looking to form new customer relationships is hardly the ideal induction into university life.

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