Freshers’ Week is upon us again. It offers every new student in the University a chance to make friends with people they’ll spend the next three years trying to shake off, learn to navigate the city’s cobblestones while drunk, and decide for themselves which Oxford nightclub is the worst. But while this may be one of the most exciting weeks of many freshers’ lives, quite a few of the perceptions created during these seven days are unsustainable for most students, and risk being seriously harmful for some. Simply, Freshers’ Week is a lie — an event-promoter’s fantasy of an Oxford where the “fun” never stops. In fact, Oxford is no holiday camp, and while it may be satisfying to watch first-years’ bushy-tailed enthusiasm fade and be replaced with uncertainty, panic and eventual weary acceptance, we need to wonder whether we are setting some people up for a serious fall.
Freshers’ Fair might be where it all starts. The sight of hundreds of societies vying for new recruits is incredibly striking, and perhaps the first university- ( as opposed college-) scale taste of Oxford life that the new students have access too. And often, attendees of the fair will encounter activities or groups that they will grow to love and see as important parts of their university lives. Yet for all that, Freshers’ Fair paints a deeply misleading picture of what Oxford life is like. When you see dozens of super-active returning students singing the praises of their pastime of choice, it’s easy to imagine that every student here is like that, and that fitting your work around wine-tasting, cage-fighting and whatever other things take your fancy is no big deal. In fact, most societies are run almost entirely by a tiny number of zealots, and most students have little or no time for more than one extra-curricular activity. The sheer number of opportunities that are thrown at you in your first days at Oxford risks being overwhelming, and the message that a normal student experience must include heavy extra-curricular activity can be dangerous: nearly every returning student can probably think of at least one friend whose studies have been seriously hurt by her penchant for ultimate Frisbee or Union politics.
The story continues at night, when freshers are sold tickets and ferried to various terrible clubs in the vicinity of the city centre. The bizarre emphasis on the idea that we should “work hard and play hard” (or something similar) among certain students here might well give the impression of a group of people who, having been regarded as geeks at school, feel it necessary to prove that they were cool all along. While that’s understandable (I guess), it’s not a particularly good idea to tell students that going clubbing every night is a sustainable plan for the future — odd, then, that in the week that is purportedly all about getting people used to university life, this is exactly what happens.
Oxford is a stressful place. Some people drop out or fail. Many more spend a large proportion of their waking hours in a blind panic about their next tutorial, or this week’s problem sheet, or the fact that they didn’t understand a word of the lecture they just got out of. Tutors and the exam system already put students under enough pressure without their feeling the need to live up to a model of some perfectly-rounded wunderkind who takes academic, social and extra-curricular life in her stride without a worry. It’s not that partying or sports or societies shouldn’t exist at university — all of them can be a great part of the student experience. But the image of university life that Freshers’ Week portrays is deeply misleading. Sure, freshers usually aren’t stupid and realize that there’s a difference between 0th week of Michaelmas and the rest of the year. But when the gap between those two things is so pronounced, it makes settling in even more difficult than it is already.