Two weeks ago, our campus at Harrow was a hotbed of creative chaos. The main thoroughfare was transformed into a market, with balloon-festooned stalls coaxing passers-by to join everything from the Football Club to the Breakdancing Society. Student TV and radio were signing up budding broadcasters, a roaming juggler performed for the queues, serenaded by student singers. The students’ union made sure there was an endless supply of free sweets, hot dogs and hamburgers and provided ambassadors to help usher the mingling crowds; there was a disco, free film nights and a bouncy castle. New fashion design recruits were all packed off to London Fashion Week on their first day - although one pleaded absence on the grounds that she was one of the catwalk models. Music performance students were given from Monday to Thursday to form themselves into groups for a campus-wide gig on Friday.
This was freshers’ week in all its glory - and events very like it have been repeated in institutions all over the country. University staff have done their level best to bury their anxieties about cuts and fees, job losses and strikes, in order to give new students the warmest possible welcome. And at a time when the whole value of higher education is coming under such intense scrutiny, it’s more important than ever that freshers are given an upbeat first experience of university life.
So what on earth possessed Libby Purves, in a recent Times column, to call for a brake to be put on the “ghastly scam” of freshers’ week? “These festivals are”, she carped, “a weird, patronising blend of nannying and temptation, peer pressure and naked marketing.” She claims that they are a cynical excuse to ply new students with cheap alcohol, while universities make money by hiring out venues and inviting in companies to market their “brands”.
Purves quoted from student websites - most notably the “Hate Freshers’ Week” Facebook site, which boasts all of members. None of these comments can possibly be regarded as typical or meaningful. And yet Purves uses them to support the jaundiced view that universities were so much more civilised and pleasantly amateurish in her day. “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 Nescafe with someone from your corridor and giggled together about the hard sell of stall holders pushing karate, Communism or the Christian Union.”
This feeble memory is contrasted with today’s version - a panoply of “club nights, paintballing, gigs and booze”. It’s hard to see quite what she finds so offensive about any of these activities, except for her palpable horror at what she clearly perceives to be a lamentable decline in university standards. (Of students who call university “uni”, she asks: “Frankly, if you can’t manage five syllables, should you be there at all?”)
Forty years ago, when Purves went to Oxford, about 3 per cent of the population were entitled to the privilege and university life tended to be rather more sedate, unless you were a member of the Bullingdon Club or a Footlighter. Now we have over a hundred universities populated by more than 30 per cent of young people. Unlike Purves, today’s students pay for their education; many have to work at the same time to support themselves. And they come from a far wider cross-section of society.
The vast majority of new students, many of them away from home for the first time, really value a warm, friendly, sociable introduction to their new lives. But it’s even more important if you’re the first in your family ever to go to university; if you come from a poor background where it’s been a struggle to get this far; if you’re from overseas and away from everything that’s familiar. For this vast, vibrant, extended community, an induction that’s fun and supportive will set the tone for the whole of the rest of their studies.
Far from milking the students dry, most universities go out of their way to make sure the freshers are not exploited. We held a lucky dip, with prizes including iPod Shuffles and memory sticks. Local businesses participated not with greed but with generosity. Free Nando chicken wings were guzzled late into the night at the welcome barbecue, and there was a non-stop supply of chocolate, popcorn and candyfloss, not to mention packets of Durex.
And while Purves does grudgingly acknowledge that “there are good things put on for freshers”, she complains that pastoral care is “hidden somewhere inside the synthetic whoopee”.
Again, I just don’t recognise this claim. At today’s freshers’ fairs, finance, housing and careers experts routinely take stands to make sure students know where to go for advice. We had on-the-spot chlamydia screening, and local doctors inviting newcomers to register, while the Metropolitan Police offered safety advice. These are not cosmetic extras nowadays but an essential part of university culture where the much-fabled “student experience” begins.
And it’s at the freshers’ fair where you can see true widening participation in action. At the incense-infused Islamic Society stand, a woman sporting a niqab was cheerfully handing out exotic sweets and leaflets; next to her, the cheerleader team was egging on students competing on the exercise bike for free gym membership; the Chinese Society was giving out moon cakes.
It may all be a far cry from the ivory towers of Purves’ Oxbridge. But it’s a timely reminder of all that has been achieved in the expansion of higher education since her day. And all that, if we’re not careful, is about to be lost.