A culture of infamy that verges on ridicule surrounds freshers week partying. However, in the light of the rising proportion of students suffering from mental health issues and the problematic lack of diversity at many of the top universities in the UK, the way British society treats the first foray into student life warrants a closer look.
Late August and early September inevitably sees a flurry of pull out leaflets, special issues, and pamphlet guides for those eagerly awaiting the start of their first terms at University. Their glossy leaves reflect the sunlight as they twist in the Autumn breeze. Pages of survival guides and bullet pointed advice columns on how to cope with the notorious 7 day-long initiation into student life that is commonly known as ‘freshers week’. From packing lists to step-by-step guides on how to interact with new people, it can sometimes feel as if conscription has been reinstated and Welcome Week is some kind of annual battle to which middle-class 18-year olds are sent, emerging with a sore head and a more intimate knowledge of a Wetherspoons breakfast.
There is an odd contradiction in the treatment of freshers; on the one hand it is notoriously idealised as a citadel of unrestrained parties, yet at the same time it is widely accepted to be a stressful and complex time for most of those who take part, and a source of anxiety for those who don’t. Beyond the expected elements of homesickness and domestic chore induced nervousness, there is a deeper attitude that the first days of University are supposed to be in actual fact pretty unpleasant and only a select few students will succeed and go on to be socially settled individuals.
A prevailing rhetoric seems to imply that freshers is to be ‘survived’, whether this is a word used by the mental health professionals who see an issue with the inordinate pressure on one’s own charisma and ability to make friends, or by underpaid club promoters who are selling the opportunity to drink one’s body weight in lukewarm mixers in a dingy club and attempt to ‘bond’ with flatmates you can’t hear over buzzing speakers. Neither groups have much faith that the week could be enjoyed on one’s own terms. It’s as if students are already being trained to accept their fate as a homogeneous group with common desires and attitudes.
These soon-to-be statistics of the student body are told that freshers should be the best week of their university experience, but that they should also be prepared to feel bored, tired and stressed most of the time. For every story of a wild night out is one of being overwhelmed and unhappy, both tales frequently leaving the same mouth. Of course, these negative aspects may not be felt by all, but it’s certainly a common theme in the account of many emerging from the 21st Century’s answer to a coming-of-age jousting tournament, where they use personality instead of spears.
The contradictory attitude to freshers exemplifies the dialectics of student life as a whole. Freshers week is simultaneously outrageous fun and incredibly damaging, all at once it exemplifies the self-congratulatory smugness many freshers feel, alongside the harm done to the mental well-being of young people in a culture whereby choice has very little to do with personal enjoyment. A culture which protrudes into wider society and forces more essential ideals of individual choice to reshape around this odd tradition.
Despite Universities’ bravado that the tradition is evolving to appeal to a more diverse range of students from different backgrounds, religions, and lifestyles. The fact remains that freshers week, and all its glorious connotations, remains the preserve of the wealthy and self-confident party-lovers whose glowing privilege is what shines from the surface of those survival guides that their parents find in their Sunday papers.
This strikes at the heart of the issue with Freshers, and arguably therefore with much of student culture, that this is another aspect of life which is designed exclusively for students, and exclusively for those willing to adopt the identity of student along with all its stereotypes. Whilst that in itself is not a reason to critique it, those who do attend higher education undoubtedly deserve an opportunity to let off steam after years of stifling secondary and A-Level education. It also means that freshers becomes an isolating and exclusive experience which prescribes a hierarchy based on the ability, and the desire, to socialise in a certain setting.