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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 September 2007, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Freshers' week - it's a fine art
By Sean Coughlan
Education reporter, BBC News

Goldsmiths' students
Students are being offered a cultural introduction to university
Forget all the old cliches about freshers' weeks.

One higher education institution is offering its new students art rather than beer.

Instead of booze, bonding and even more booze, Goldsmiths, University of London, is ditching the "alcohol-centred, cheesy disco stereotype".

Instead it wants to have a wider range of cultural events that will appeal to an increasingly-diverse student body.

So a students' union venue, once dedicated to drinking, is being used as a showcase for students' art work.

There are more daytime social gatherings this year and an emphasis on providing practical local information.

The response, says the students' union, has been overwhelmingly positive.

More than a third of a million new first year students are in the process of beginning their university courses in the UK - and the non-alcoholic style shift at Goldsmiths is a reflection of how much the higher education experience is changing.

'Straight edge'

Student union president Hannah Bullivant and welfare officer Jack Gillis say it's a question of serving the needs of the type of people now starting university.

There are more part-time students, more mature students, more overseas students - and full-time students are more likely to have part-time jobs - all of which means less of a drinking culture.

Hannah Bullivant
Hannah Bullivant: student drinking culture is in decline
"People tend to focus on Muslims when they talk about students not drinking, but there are lots of other students who choose not drink - whether it's from cultural reasons, health, vanity or money. It's just not as prevalent," says Ms Bullivant.

There are also non-drinking sub-cultures. Mr Gillis says that there are "straight edge" students at Goldsmiths, who avoid alcohol, drugs and casual sex.

Students are also more likely to be interested in healthy living these days, they say - using the gym and cooking healthy food.

There is also the growing phenomenon of the commuter student, more likely to be heading for the train station than the bar.

"Many more students are living at home and commuting in - as they've worked out it's cheaper to travel each day rather than staying in halls or renting nearby," says Ms Bullivant.


Freshers' week now also has a virtual dimension. There are freshers' groups on the all-pervasive Facebook website - and Mr Gillis says that the new students are talking to each other before they have even arrived at university.

They are also arriving at university ready-dressed with the appropriate student look, he says - a tribute to how quickly niche fashions can be communicated through social networking websites.

There are also changes going on in the way students see university. It's a serious investment - and no-one wants to get into that much debt for nothing.

"It's a huge financial commitment, students are far more conscious of the cost, so they're more measured. They're making sacrifices to be here, so they're working harder," says Ms Bullivant.

No one just rambles into university these days - the students arriving this autumn will have laid their plans in great detail, taking into account the cost and the likely outcome for their careers.

"It is so competitive now. It's not just about having a first or 2:1, it's about getting the degree from the right department, or with the right internship or volunteering," says Mr Gillis.

Legal threat

The student union has identified stress and mental health problems as a growing issue that needs to be addressed this year.

Paying for courses is also encouraging more students to see themselves as consumers.

"It's inevitable that if you charge fees, people are going to ask what they're getting for their money. But that can really damage the partnership between lecturer and student," she says.

Student advice centres regularly see students who are threatening legal action in disputes over course provision, such as tuition hours or access to facilities.

"They say it's in the prospectus, so that counts as a contract, so they want to sue," she says.

Brand aware

Institutions themselves are being seen in a more consumerist light.

Goldsmiths, famous for its creative arts, is one of two UK higher education institutions to feature as a "brand" in the annual "superbrands" marketing list.

The university, defined as a "cool brand", lines up alongside the likes of products such as Aston Martin, Nokia and Chanel. All a long way from any Young Ones image of student life.

And Mr Gillis says that the brand appeal of Goldsmiths will have been part of the motivation for students arriving this autumn.

It's hard to avoid the impact of money on university life. Students, paying fees and running up debts, are more cash-aware than ever - and their attitudes have changed accordingly. Universities are more business-aware and are packaging themselves as never before.

"I don't want to paint a bleak picture, because university is still a brilliant thing to do, but it has changed," says Ms Bullivant.

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