This article is more than 1 year old

Welcome week should be all about the family

This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

What is an amazing Freshers Week anyway?

One of the things about freshers that I think is kind of interesting, is that like many of the things that we do in higher education in general and in students unions in particular, there’s a lot of let’s do what we did last year.

That drive – to make minor improvements, tweaks and changes – is important.

But given how rapidly the student body in a lot of universities is changing, maybe that kind of “photocopy last year” thing is no longer the right approach.

One of the things that has made me think about this a lot over the past couple of weeks is loneliness.

You’d better live in love

In January and February we’ve been piloting a new survey scheme that we’ll be launching at the Secret Life of students, and for example what we’ve done here is compared the results for students saying that they’re performing to the best of their ability on their course, with how often they feel lonely.

The relationship is strong.

We’ve got lots of other results that we’ll talk about in a couple of weeks at SLoS that remind us how important it is to feel and be part of an academic community.

And yet there’s a problem. At SLoS we’ll be reporting that this year’s daily loneliness score is 19 per cent of students nationally – up from 2019.

If one in five students are feeling like that, there’s more work to be done on belonging, social capital, friendship – all stuff that SUs should be best at.

To that end, we’ve been thinking about induction and freshers – and the reality is that in that space we’re not doing great.

In luxury and sunlight

Earlier, I asked chat GPT what characterises the induction or enrollment period for new students in a UK university – and this was the answer I got:

  • Welcome Week: Most universities in the UK offer a dedicated “Welcome Week” at the beginning of the academic year, which is designed to introduce new students to their university and the wider community. During this week, students can attend a variety of events, including campus tours, information sessions, and social events.
  • Talks: Universities usually offer talks on student life and aspects of the university that students need to understand, such as how to access the library or rules of student conduct.
  • Student societies and clubs: UK universities often have a wide range of student societies and clubs that cater to a variety of interests, from sports teams to political societies. Joining a society or club is a great way for new students to meet like-minded people and get involved in campus life.
  • Social events: UK universities also offer a range of social events throughout the week, such as parties, concerts, and cultural events. These events provide opportunities for students to socialize and meet new people outside of their academic studies.

In many ways these components deliver on the needs of the SU – to be efficient given huge student numbers, to be rapid so that the academic year can begin, to generate income and revenue and to “live up” to hype, expectation and what was achieved last year.

But those are our needs, not theirs. And what’s fascinating about these components is that to a considerable extent, they represent a “deep end” – a large, mass, intimidating set of “sink or swim” activities to be “survived”.

What we know is that a lot of students – especially those whose schooling was scared by the pandemic – need a much shallow(er) end.

And don’t be dining out

In new survey work from UniBuddy, over a quarter of students were “not confident at all” about their social abilities when they applied to university, and fourteen per cent either struggled or failed to make any friends having arrived.

The UK results of its study on student confidence, weighted for gender, ethnicity, and international / home domicile, also show factors impacting student confidence – over half cite their mental health, 1 in 5 say they have not chosen the right university for them, and 30 per cent are taking a confidence hit over their finances.

Over a quarter of students feel their confidence would improve if they had a student mentor, and almost 1 in 4 feel would get a confidence boost from being given more opportunities to make friends.

So if we ask ourselves what students need to know, to be able to do, and to be comfortable and confident about, we might end up with a new kind of Freshers.

And once we agree that that needs to be smaller, easier to cope with, more intimate and less intimidating, the question is how that might be scaled – and whose job it is to design and deliver it.

On foolish dreams every night

In OfS’ proposals on harassment and sexual misconduct, there’s a call to dramatically scale up teaching and training on consent and bystander responses. The requirement is that this is synchronous – where students can discuss the issues – and will reach all students.

That poses the question – who will deliver it?

  • A university could try one of the online asynchronous providers in this space – but OfS would almost certainly say “not good enough”
  • You could bring in an external firm – but that would be expensive, and not scalable.
  • You could use professional services staff – but they likely wouldn’t have the capacity, and so that’s not scalable either.
  • You could use your academic staff. But they’ll resist – and who wants their cis, het white 60 year old history lecturer doing a talk on consent?

It’s obvious that the best solution will be for students to deliver it, on a train the trainer model, ideally organised by the SU. If that’s not in your block grant discussions this spring, it should be.

But once you’ve got comfortable with thinking up how the SU can scale that kind of operation over welcome, what about other things you could scale on that kind of model?

Can’t afford to wear

Across Europe, in almost every university we’ve visited on our study tours, “family” inductions are a major aspect of the welcome offer.

They usually involve being out in a group of between 5 and 15 students with a trained student mentor that has link to an academic society.

And crucially, the mentor plans your welcome week.

Sure, that patches into wider programmes, events and activities.

But it’s your mentor that sorts the getting to know you games with other students, does the campus tour, shows you around the city, helps you explore your identity and motivations, explains involvement opportunities, and covers off how to do well on the course every week until Christmas over cake.

In almost every place we’ve seen these schemes are student or SU led and designed, command high participation from students, attract huge numbers of volunteers, get good funding from the university and have demonstrable impacts on retention.

At VU Amsterdam, students are told:

  • You will become acquainted with your degree programme and fellow students.
  • You will discover all the hotspots on campus and of Amsterdam.
  • You will participate in activities and go to fun performances
  • You will take part in interesting workshops that help you prepare for your studies.
  • You will find out more about the countless associations you can join at VU Amsterdam or in the city itself.
  • The five-day event will be concluded with a party in several Amsterdam clubs.

At Oslo Met, a “fadder” is:

  • An ambassador: During the buddy weeks, you are the public face of the university and your study programme.
  • A model: The new students look up to you and pay close attention to what you say and do!
  • A caregiver: Shows consideration, responsibility and gets everyone in the group involved.
  • A signpost: Answers questions and refers further if needed.

And in multiple models we’ve seen, people meet up before they even get to university on Zoom; they can often choose from a long or short programme; they’re usually held within subjects but are chosen for diversity; often streamed for age; and there’s usually dedicated programmes aimed at international PGTs and in some universities additional days designed and led by first in family students.

I can supply you things

If it’s the case that these programmes could impact continuation, mental health, satisfaction and student outcomes – and all the evidence says they could – SUs should be thinking about how to run and scale them up quickly.

If it’s the case that they help foster belonging, confidence and skills, they are potentially the ultimate manifestation of the SU as an educational charity.

And if they role model student leadership and volunteerism and help get students engaged in extracurricular activities as well, all the better.

At Roskilde University in Denmark, the SU’s Reality Bites is the new students mentoring scheme. There each mentor looks after 5 new students throughout their 1st semester. Mentors serve as a “source of inspiration” for how students can make their study time more relevant and how they can make the most of their time as a student both inside and outside of the university.

At KTH in Stockholm, the chapters (big academic societies) each run their own little Welcome Week with a focus on getting to know other students. At DTU in Denmark, a new students programme involves volunteers taking new students on a “rus tur” to a camp, house or other venue before the start of term to cause some bonding between new students.

In Sweden, Jönköping University SU is particularly proud of the way it “Kicks In” students. The event runs as a huge teambuilding event- students in schools are organised into groups who then take part in challenges/games with other students from other schools, acquiring patches to put on their jumpsuit.

And in Antwerp Exploration days are three day summer camps where first-year students get acquainted with fellow students and get information from both academic staff and experienced students.

What all of these schemes represent is a welcome period that patches into what the university and the SU have on, and probably starts earlier and finishes much later as mentors keep their group engaged all term.

But most importantly, they’re about students organising an amazing Freshers Week, rather than us.

They’re about community, connection, confidence and overcoming imposter syndrome.

They’re about meeting students’ needs and understanding the importance of service to others and building networks.

Above all, they’re about the awesome ability of school plays to make us laugh and cry and emotionally invest – when the showbiz ritz of the Broadway Musical so often leaves us cold and disappointed.

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