Sunday Times, 13.09.15, Chris Ramsey, co-chair of the HMC/GSA Universities Committee and headmaster of leading independent The King's School, Chester writes about fresher's week and transitions to university:
It's Freshers’ Week again, and up and down the country new students are being encouraged to join in the spirit of university life by drinking too much, partying, clubbing, and generally raising mayhem. It is encouraging to see the Business Secretary Sajid Javid pledging to address the 'lad culture' too often seen in student bars; however a quick scan of university websites demonstrates there is much still to be done. On one city campus, Freshers' Week will consist of seven consecutive nights ranging from Get On It at one nightclub to a Onesie party and, as participants crawl towards night seven, an all-day pub quiz. With another (Russell Group) university recommending 'that you get out every night' (or what? You're a loser?), another marketing its ‘standard’ package as six nights clubbing and a third running a Freshers' Fortnight, it's hard to see any change in what many parents and school Head Teachers have worried about for years – students booze cruising through the early years of University. Young people after all have been nurtured as best we can, and the baton should be passed on and received with some care, even though the youngsters are now, ostensibly, fully fledged adults.
This weekend, in response to Sajid Javid, the new Head of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent has responded with concern and calls on universities and students unions to clean up their act. And there is plenty of good, semi-clean fun to be had: for example Kent's Freshers' 'Fayre' seems genuinely to be about social activity and even charity fundraising, and puts oversight of new undergraduates firmly in the hands of older students. This suggests they will need to show responsibility, and of course many students do; advice on sensible behaviour is given out in various famous city campuses. More to the point though: who advises the older students on how to make the newbies welcome?
I am more than aware that I and other Head Teachers may stand accused of fuddy duddyism, and as a father of three, including one at university, I know I hope how to tread carefully along the line between taking care and caring too much. However, young people are not just facing a benign and centuries-old rite of passage. If it is the case that one in seven female university students claim to have been seriously sexually assaulted, action is necessary.
Plus there are other reasons why those of us concerned with the development of eighteen and nineteen year-olds should do more than just sigh and turn away. The first is the existence of new and viable alternatives: apprenticeships, once a second rate choice, are being offered by the likes of KPMG and Bank of America as new routes into high-quality training and work. There may be something to learn from the vsion of Higher Education being offered to these young people.
The other is increasingly wobbly standards and an apparent lack of consistency across universities. Doubts are being raised about reliability of degree classification and the rising number of Firsts and 2:1s being awarded by some institutions. This must be addressed, or it will devalue degrees for all.
Of course UK universities are on the whole wonderful; of course demand is still sky high. But all those of us who believe in great education need to galvanise ourselves. The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference is taking a lead by working with state school and university leaders to work out what effective, proportionate pastoral care should look like for young people moving from school to university. At the same time we urgently want our universities to articulate what they are for, apart from employability (too narrow), apart from having a good time (too Bullingdon Club), apart from just being the ‘done’ thing. They have a great and enduring purpose, and if we could inject just a tiny bit of vision into the first week or so, then we could all raise a glass to that. Or even two.
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