High time to refresh our approach to Freshers

Olivia Flavell is Education Program Coordinator at Durham SU

Freshers’ week is a hallmark of university culture and has been memoralised in various parts of the cultural zeitgeist – from Fresh Meat to Saltburn.

Generally, suppose you asked a graduate to think about university induction. Many might share fond memories of sampling local nightlife, meeting new people, and trying to find the best local takeaway.

Yet a successful induction programme should be more than just social events, especially those that revolve around alcohol.

Induction is a critical period where students are expected to adapt to a new way of life, often in a new city or country, and begin forming strong networks that may ease the homesickness and loneliness that can come with moving to university.

Many of us working with students presume this sort of social bonding will happen during the induction period, either because students will do it themselves or because we feel the activities and events we invite students to attend are enough.

But, as recent research has shown, many students need a little extra support to make friends, introduce themselves to new people, or attend the event in the first place.

Back to basics

At Durham SU our strategy recognises the importance of induction, and acknowledges that induction is not a stagnant point in the year – it can and should go beyond that initial week in September.

As the team began planning for next year’s induction, we wanted to understand what our students needed to make their induction a success and how we could better collaborate with the university to deliver a well-rounded induction programme.

Once we started, it quickly became clear that the following four themes cover the main concerns of students themselves and the staff who support them – student expectations, academic preparedness, social belonging, and student life.

Recently, Durham SU collaborated with the university to research how first year undergraduate students found their induction period. By examining student feedback, and how they fit into each of the four common themes, it provided a framework for both ourselves and the university to think of some potential solutions.

Student expectations

Before arriving at their chosen university, students may have high expectations of how their life will look. This can be about the campus, their accommodation, the academic support and so on.

If students have visited campus for tours and open days, it’s often the nicest parts of campus that are shown off to prospective students – something that is definitely the case at Durham.

When students visit Durham, a beautiful historic city with winding cobblestone streets, they often seek out the Bailey Colleges, those in the centre of Durham, with one even being inside an 11th century Norman castle.

These colleges are considered more “traditional” as they are some of the oldest colleges in Durham. The “Hill Colleges” are further out of the city with many being more modern in appearance with distinctive architectural styles (Trevelyan and Van Mildert being two examples).

Now, on the face of it this sounds like a very “Durham” problem – students feeling disappointed their college doesn’t look historic enough. However, the principle lesson is relevant in and outside of Durham.

Creating an idealised image of the university campus for prospective students both in person and via brochures can inadvertently build a rod for the institutions’ back.

Our qualitative and also academic research into students’ pre-arrival expectations suggests that while open days show of the “best” the campus has to offer to sell the institution, many students crave a realistic look at what their life might look like.

There is a lot of content online both commissioned by institutions, or done by current students about a typical “day in the life” – much of which is the very opposite of glamorous, and it seems prospective students crave this sort of honest information sharing.

If institutions choose not to show all aspects of student life, universities can unintentionally create more aspirational expectations for students, leading to higher chances of disappointment for students who, because of housing shortages or tighter budgets, don’t get to have a nice en suite apartment, two minutes away from the library.

This is especially important for managing the expectations of international students who might have only been able to look at pictures online. Of course, this is a difficult case to make for universities that rely heavily on external image to appeal to as many prospective students as possible.

However, the work of student content creators sharing their day to day experiences of various parts of student life in the city on The Durham Student blog is one way in which our university is offering this realistic insight to potential students.

Academic prepardeness

It’s hard to feel academically prepared for university and I’m sure many remember the infamous comment from school and college teachers: “it won’t be like this at university”. Induction literature shows it can be assumed by academic staff that students’ previous study has prepared them for the content they will face once they arrive at university.

Yet this is rarely the case and as universities attempt to widen participation to students from non-traditional backgrounds, it’s becoming clearer that more support is needed to academically prepare students.

Being from a non-traditional background refers to students who meet a variety of criteria often associated with their background, being over the age of 24, not living on-campus, level of employment, and other factors that mean these individuals typically have more responsibilities than a “traditional” student.

There are many theoretical explanations as to why the academic outcomes of students from widening participation backgrounds can differ from the rest of the student population.

Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and capital claim that students from traditional backgrounds are socialised with, and have more access to, resources and attitudes that are valued in higher education, whilst non-traditional students are not.

Student feedback from multiple studies highlights that students do struggle to adapt to teaching and learning styles when they first start. This is a general theme throughout induction literature, a challenge facing the sector, and something reflected in our student feedback, with students suggesting they would like crash courses on how to reference, to be sent their reading lists in advance, and generally more of a focus on developing academic skills during those early weeks.

Social belonging

Developing a sense of social belonging is important for students’ retention. Building solid friendships in those early weeks is what helps students remain resilient whilst they’re adapting to their new environment.

The collegiate system at Durham gives a unique advantage here, as during Freshers’ Week students attend social events run by their college and common rooms. The colleges at Durham have their own sports teams, and study spaces, so it’s not hard to imagine that most students can form large groups of friends in their first year.

Of course, this is not the case for all, with some having a poor experience of their college. Some students find it difficult to make friends within their college or experience bullying and elitism (for more information read the Durham SU’s Culture Commission). Although colleges are not the only place where students can find belonging, it is important to recognise that in Durham’s case, they are where many first years spend their time.

When discussing social belonging, it was clear that students would like more social opportunities beyond their colleges, specifically within their departments. This would give them a chance to meet their peers early on and ensure they have friends from across the university, not just in one college.

Although this example is very Durham-specific, it is important for social belonging that students have multiple opportunities to engage with each other across the university to give them the best chance of finding their people.

Student life

One of the biggest adjustments when moving into university is adapting to student life, as it’s often someone’s first experience of living away from home. This can sometimes be overlooked in university inductions, with activities being focused more on making new friends and getting to know university processes.

Adapting to living in a new city can be difficult for students, especially international students who may have to manage adapting to a new culture and language. Again, looking at research into induction, it’s clear that students would like some more support in adapting to their new environment. This could look like: help finding part-time work, how to manage bills and finances, and where to go for housing concerns.

With the current cost of living crisis, it’s even more important that universities are realistic about the most pressing concerns students are likely to arrive with. Some universities have a recommended set number of working hours per term encouraging students to seek employment on campus rather than in the city.

However, with more students being pushed into part-time work and limited ‘student-friendly’ positions available, universities need to be proactive about the support they provide for those seeking employment.

Induction is key as it sets the metaphorical bar for students’ expectations of their university life. As an SU, we must work closely with our students to understand what they need in their induction and the four themes above have been extremely useful in guiding our insights.

Read more

Student Induction and Orientation Report 2024 @ Durham SU.

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