Are you free this coming freshers’ week?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The Edinburgh Festival kicked off this weekend, and it reminded me how expensive the whole thing can be.

As well as the travel and accommodation – the costs of which get ramped up out of scarcity – once you take in a few shows, drinks and meals, you’re burning a serious hole in your wallet.

It’s ironic, because the fringe festival was never supposed to be such a glitzy and costly affair. It dates back to 1947, when a bunch of amateur theatre groups turned up uninvited to perform at the more formal Edinburgh International Festival, which had been created to celebrate and enrich European cultural life in the wake of the Second World War.

Not being part of the formal festival programme didn’t stop them – they just staged their little amateur shows on the fringe of the event anyway, attracting all sorts of interest and support from those that preferred something more informal and social. Now it’s hugely popular, highly commercial and often the opposite of intimate and friendly.

The good news, however, is that if you are able to make it to the city over the next few weeks, the Free Festival is back – with a whole bunch of comedy, cabaret, theatre, kids shows and music performances operating as Free & Unticketed or Pay What You Want – making at least part of the fringe accessible for those keeping an eye on their budget.

Freshers foam-o

I raise this because one thing that I didn’t put in the 101 ways to get the cost of living down for students article back in January was the cost of Welcome/Freshers Week. I should have, really.

Like the Edinburgh Fringe, what started as a bunch of meet n greets, quiz nights in halls bars and games of rounders to complement the formal induction activities of the university has turned into a huge commercial event, both for SUs and less scrupulous operators keen to sell their:

❌Foam Parties❌UV Neon rave Parties❌ Fancy Dress❌Co2 Blasters❌Confetti Storms❌Huge Giveaways❌Thousands of Inflatables❌A profound sense of emptiness❌

The thing that’s clear is that while there really are *some* fans of foam, the Baywatch theme tune and the lads from Sigala, the reality is that what students are really searching for in that week is friends.

That has dangers. Even if it’s just about the only commercial thing left that the SU does, because it’s also the first it can dominate perceptions and messaging. And if that perception is that the SU is there to make money out of us in a year when money is in tight supply, that could spell serious trouble for the rest of the year’s engagement.

So notwithstanding how expensive the city is, given there’s always something free to do at the Edinburgh Festival, I wonder whether SUs shouldn’t be using the few weeks left before the big week to work up delivery of that kind of big, clear commitment.

It’s fucking freezing

As well as traditional freshers fairs, one thing we saw in Scandinavia on our study tour earlier this year was festival events where every student group, club, and project put something on – a performance, a try out session, a reading, a kick about, and so on.

There’s a touch of grandma and sucking eggs here for many SUs – but it would be great to see loads of SUs getting their student groups to effectively stage a shadow free freshers to go alongside the Vengaboys Foam Brightside at Pryzm, or whatever is in the wristband.

Lots of other fun things could happen. One thing we loved was seeing a project in Denmark where local students were buddied up with groups of “away from homers” to show them around the city with free or subsidised tickets.

Another was at a WP focussed university in Sweden where all new students take part in a week of activity organised by four “generals” (one for each faculty), including opportunities for groups of new students to earn points both for their team and for their faculty. There are team building events, a city walk, a big games day, water games and a series of buffet dinners. Points can be obtained for learning about the SU, the university, the city and each other.

And in Finland at one university we saw academic societies organising what’s called “head start” events – where new off-campus students get to meet each other before the start of the academic year and plan free activities that will run once the big week arrives.

In Norway, we met an officer from its NUS who had been a student in the UK too. One of her favourite memories from Norwegian freshers week was a treasure/scavenger hunt which grouped up random students and set them off around the town and campus with different team building activities and challenges to complete. It didn’t cost much to organise – and they got to know each other and their new surroundings.

Another key component was having an allocated group from their course that they got to know, led by a couple of buddies from other years. This also meant they had people to go to things with and who could share their experiences and buy books from.

Zoom quizzes were fun at first

Who knows whether any or all of these could work. The point is that when SUs are under pressure – as we saw in the early days of the pandemic – they’re among the best organisations in the country at convening creativity and getting students involved in leading projects, solutions and events for others.

Just as we’ve seen over things like graduation this summer, “School play syndrome” is important to bear in mind. You know the old theory – school plays sell out, but 9 out of 10 broadway musicals fail. When students organise stuff for each other, it can often be a bit ropey but it’s like a school play – everyone loves it because of the emotional ties. The best graduations are like that moment in Nativity towards the end when you’re in floods. They’re about friends and family – not fireworks and fuss.

So identifying how students might be enabled to stage an amazing welcome week on pennies for each other – without making poorer new students feel like the kids at the back of the procession in the pied piper – would almost certainly be an hour or so well spent in the coming days.

Getting around a sheet of flip chart, or convening a zoom call with any student who looks and sounds like they might be able to help out feels like it could work – and with some vision and some ambitious targets, could late-deliver the welcome week that students need this year. Some scenarios should get the creatives flowing. What if everything during Welcome had to be free? What if every student only had a £10 budget? What if we guaranteed every student the chance to meet people outside outside of their course in a social setting? And so on.

There’s a mental health aspect to this too. Big events – like the single, noisy and huge Freshers far or the big ball with the fairground might be exciting events to stage. But for a large proportion of new students that are neurodivergent or have significant social anxiety, these may be the last events that make sense. Framing them an option rather than an unmissable rite of passage seems like the right thing to do.

Clearly, the more that clubs and societies and university staff are involved, the more solidarity and understanding will be built with the plight of low income students in the year ahead. It’s also one of those projects – all hands on deck style – where SU staff from across the union could have an idea or event up their sleeve.

But ultimately, it comes down to this. Even if you need to promote those wristbands, sending signals you get that some are on a very tight budget – and you value them as much as the big spenders – is more important this year than ever. Because even if the political priority for the year ahead is the Cost of Living crisis – will students believe it if the principal signal we’re sending is about six club nights and a mega quiz instead of friendship and connections?

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