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Freshers scares

Two graduates of 1998 advise the new student intake to make the most of the next three years- by ignoring all the 'safety' advice that they get

Hugh Peto, University of Edinburgh

If you are off to uni for the first time, listen up and listen good. University is the only time in your life when you have no worries. According to the law you are now an adult. You are also independent of your parents. You have no homework; you can get on with coursework in your own time. You are free to do what you want and there are no consequences. You don't get home until six in the morning? Fine, you don't have to go to lectures and you can copy somebody's notes. You're pregnant? Fine, have an abortion and nobody need know. You have a bad trip, convinced that the whole world is out to get you? Fine, stay in bed for two days until it wears off.

Compare this to the real world, where your actions have very real consequences. You screw somebody in the office: your spouse finds out and your marriage is finished. You drink too much: your work suffers and your promotion never comes. You lose 1000 on spread-betting one evening: you can't pay the mortgage or the Child Support Agency and you soon find out who your real friends are.

At this juncture in my life, poised between the two worlds, I have a Janus-like ability to see both the past and the future. Being a fresher is a tremendous opportunity: you have won a place at university and you have your whole life in front of you, with three or four years to learn about whatever interests you, fall in love, travel abroad and dye your hair pink. Which is why it astonishes me that the time in your life when you are most free is also the time when you are encouraged to take most caution, bombarded with information and advice about all the risks and dangers that await you at college.

At the freshers' fair the real onslaught begins. My first impression was of a big market; hundreds of stalls full of traders hawking their wares, while thousands of fresh-faced students milled around, searching for the Whisky Appreciation Society or the Canoeing Club.

But instead of shouting 'strawberries, four pound a pound', half of the stalls were selling fear. Insurance companies: 'have you insured yourself against break-ins, muggings, tornadoes, death?' The police: 'students are particularly vulnerable to crime, so watch out 'cos the townies don't like you.' Women's groups: 'women, know your limits! If your boyfriend rapes you then use this free alarm.' Lefties: 'students are so very poor, they don't have enough money to eat, so they are forced to sell their bodies.'

The scaremonger-in-residence is the students' union. Lately they have been concerned with highlighting the following list of cheery items: surviving on no money, meningitis, carbon monoxide poisoning and gas death landlords, stopping smoking, medical tests on students, curbing alcohol intake, safe housing, study skills, banning racismsexismfatcatgreed, and, of course, Aidsawarenessandsafesex. Why?

Like the case studies and agony pages that clog up girlie magazines, what passes for 'advice' and 'information' from student bodies should be treated with scepticism. Bombarding freshers with horror stories of date rape, giant cockroaches, hunger and Aids presents a skewed view of life at university. Observe the following advice given by the National Union of Students regarding meningitis:

'If you think its [sic] a bad dose of flu, a heavy hangover or drugs, don't just leave it: check out the symptoms. If you're feeling really bad, tell someone; if a mate's looking rough, stick around...one in 10 of us, at any time, are carrying the bacteria which cause meningitis! We pass them between each other by regular close contact, such as kissing! We don't know who is at risk-so get the symptoms sussed-it could save a life.'

You get the picture. And what a distorted one it is. You would never know that meningitis and meningitis blood-poisoning are extremely rare. Instead an epidemic of these conditions appears to have become an everyday problem of student life.

Most students will never have bastard landlords, meningitis or get beaten up or sexually abused, and many take little notice of the specific advice around something like the meningitis scare. But all of the scaremongering and advice-pushing does help to create a general climate in which students can take the easy option.

Haven't finished your essay on time? Why blame yourself for bad time-management when you can blame 'family problems'? Keep getting sub-standard marks? Don't blame yourself for getting pissed six nights out of seven, when your students' union is there to confirm that you must have a disease or medical syndrome you never knew existed. The problem is that such 'advice' tends to undermine your sense of self-responsibility. I'd rather learn golf course studies.

So, if you're off to uni, I have no advice to give you. Just have a great one! And, in the words of the old 2 Unlimited song...how does it go again? I must be getting old.

Barry Curtis, University of Kent at Canterbury

It is tempting to think that not much harm could occur at the University of Kent, situated as it is in the rolling hills of holy Canterbury. When you arrive though the first things you see will be the safety handbooks. Or the security guards. Or the CCTV. If all that fails to catch your eye you have probably been enrolled in a self-defence class, or are busy receiving the swipe cards, rape alarms and helpline directories.

There are now so many safety measures on campus I am wondering how to cope back in the University of Life. I may have been armed with an alumni card which grants me permanent sanctuary in Happy Land; but at UKC these days students seem too busy being worried to have fun.

Thinking back to the prospectus I saw three years ago, I do not recall reading that Canterbury was like downtown LA. If I thought that going to university would put me 'at risk' I would not have gone. The students' union women's officer Helen Rogers says that the real level of danger is not the point: 'There is probably a link between safety measures and preventing crime, but the main thrust for me is that they create a safe atmosphere.' No they don't. All this emphasis on safety just makes students feel more threatened than they would otherwise.

When you experience safety measures all around you, you begin to feel scared. When you are told 'smile! You're on CCTV!', or you see security guards walking the ladies home, your sense of security is undermined. A major part of going to university involves meeting new people, but when you are made to feel threatened by others, that process is hampered. Security guards now patrol the bars and perform random ID checks. What sense of community could all this possibly foster? Last term security guards scrapped outdoor parties even before they had begun. Everybody had to content themselves with the politically correct discotheques, complete with 'Warning! Strobe in use!'. My gosh! Flashing lights? At a disco?

Every few months there is an additional safety feature. This is strikingly odd, yet it reinforces my point. If safety campaigns really could make people feel safer shouldn't we expect to see some success? Instead anxieties are growing.

The students' union document about how to walk (yes, we are all toddlers again) tells us: 'Avoid an aggressive stance: crossed arms, hands on hips, a wagging finger or raised arm will challenge and confront. Avoid looking down or touching someone unnecessarily.' All this is far more likely to make people paranoid than it is to reassure them that Kent is the garden of England. Yet we are told to 'look confident' by 'walking tall', and to develop the skill of 'tension control'. Tension control means, it seems, avoiding risk altogether. In a phrase remarkably similar to what mummy and daddy would say the union advises, 'Let someone know (or at least leave a note to say) where you are, where you are going and when you will be back. If your plans change, tell someone'. So if you knock on somebody's door (presuming that you are even able to get into their corridor), and discover that they are out, it is implied that they have met their doom.

The irony is that one of the most enjoyable features of campus life is surely the spontaneity. In its rare dynamic moments Canterbury would host a beer festival, or have somebody famous turn up. In such situations the freedom to break your plans was great. Students deprived of that freedom, and made to sit quivering in their hall with their finger on the panic button, may be safe from life, but they will also be very bored and dull individuals indeed.

Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

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