What You Think You Know About Freshers’ Week Is Wrong

If you want to know what students really want, you should listen to Students’ Unions, not private school headteachers.

Over the last 24 hours, there has been a slew of reports concerning freshers’ weeks and how they are festivals of heavy drinking, causing isolation and great expense for students.

The reports come in response to comments made by William Richardson, the general secretary of Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, at their annual gathering yesterday. He argued that “anecdotal evidence” showed the welcome period for institutions had “got out of control 10 years ago” and “students wanted it reformed”.

At the National Union of Students, our job is to work through and with the 550 students’ unions across the United Kingdom to represent their seven million students. Not only is it our job to represent those students, but to develop their students’ unions.

I can’t pretend we don’t find it disappointing when time and time again, students and their students’ unions are misrepresented in the public eye.

If it’s not about SUs “banning” something or someone – this basically never happens – or some kind of heavy drinking activity – also far more rare than people realise – then you probably wouldn’t have read about them anywhere.

The reality of what SUs do is far different to the way they are portrayed. Long before most of the wider public realised it, students’ unions understood that our membership – students – were changing. We were more diverse, from different backgrounds, culturally and socio-economically. We wanted a variety of experiences and choices throughout our time as students. Yes, we cared a lot about personal development and getting a good job upon leaving tertiary education. Just having a bar in the students’ union wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

When I was president of my students’ union, the director of finance at my institution was giving a speech and he referenced us, saying: “when I was a student, my union was a bar and a spot of rugger, now it’s so much more than that”.

That bar and “a spot of rugger” may have been the experience of those who are now in significant public positions, but they are not the reality current students are living today. Students’ unions have been faced with the challenge of rising expectations, students feeling cash poor and wanting a variety of experiences – and they have risen spectacularly to it.

“Students’ unions have been faced with the challenge of rising expectations – and they have risen spectacularly to it.”

From Bath University Students’ Union doing murder mystery night and trips to IKEA, to Northampton University Students’ Union taking students on Pokemon Go trips and hosting a parents and kids day. University of West London SU run the ‘Big Conversation’ and speak to every single first year about their hopes and aspirations. FXU Students’ Union hosted a Faith Fair for religious students, Birmingham Guild of Students were hosting free fitness classes just last night and most large students’ unions are doing ‘Give it a Go’ cultural trips across their cities.
When I was president of Hull University’s Union, we changed ‘Freshers’ Week’ to ‘Welcomefest’ – which consisted of over 70 events across a 21-day period, the vast majority non-alcoholic and incredibly cheap.

Students’ Unions are already there. And there is a reason why: we listen to our students and we take these things seriously.

The HEA released a seminal report a couple of years ago about student retention. It argued the essential thing needed to achieve retention and progression, which are key institutional metrics, is a “sense of belonging”.

The vast majority of where that feeling is created isn’t in the classroom, it’s in something organised by the students’ union. We know that by getting students in rooms together, trying new things, meeting new people and feeling safe and comfortable keeps them in education.

For a national organisation like NUS, and our member students’ unions, there is nothing more sacrosanct. We believe education is transformative and a public good. It is to all our benefit if our society is well-educated and well-trained, and that this pool of people is diverse.

It is to a students’ union’s benefit to ensure we are engaging and therefore representing all of our students, not just those who enjoy one particular activity.

NUS runs an Alcohol Impact programme to encourage responsible drinking, change attitudes towards alcohol, and build healthier, safer, more productive student communities. The pilot was successful, and the project is being picked up by more and more institutions.

So, we’re glad you’ve noticed students are diversifying and their needs are different to the previous generations. But we did too – quite a while ago, in fact.


What do you think?

Do Freshers' Weeks need reforming?

  • No
  • Yes
  • Scrap them completely
  • No, as long as they continue doing alternative events