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Welcome to freshers’ week: your life’s lessons journey starts here

By Caroline Farrow

Thousands of students who are arriving for their first week at university and eagerly anticipating the joys of Freshers’ Week, are being issued with fluorescent wristbands printed with their address and emergency contact details should they find themselves needing to be picked up and helped out of a gutter somewhere following a boozy night out.

The wristbands, which have been wittily compared to the label worn by Paddington Bear, have elicited a flood of criticism on the grounds that they encourage irresponsible behaviour by students who may be lulled into a false sense of security and drink excessively.

As Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and former headmaster of Wellington College points out, “Freshers’ Weeks are often wonderful for students, but becoming so drunk that you need a wristband to help you isn’t going to result in anyone having a good time”.

The pragmatist in me wants to concede that the idea of a wristband seems a very good idea and I have to confess that such a thing may well have come in very handy at times during my misspent youth! I don’t think I ever got quite to the stage of passing out or losing consciousness, but a handy fluorescent reminder of my address, or where I was supposed to be staying that night, when wandering half-cut around a strange city, could have been very useful indeed.

It would be all to easy to denounce a culture of immorality for the photos already printed in the tabloids of young students experiencing their first taste of independence seemingly losing all their inhibitions on the streets of the nation’s cities, but this isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. Students have always had a reputation for drunken antics; wheeling a friend down the road in a stolen supermarket trolley with a traffic cone on their head may seem like an act of supreme daring and subversive wit to the participant, a source of many a loudly recounted anecdote, but it’s standard rite of passage fare to anyone familiar with the student community.

In fact, we shouldn’t be surprised that so many of today’s students can’t hold their drink – if only because so many of them aren’t used to it. According to recent figures from the National Statistics Office, Britain’s young people are turning away from alcohol in droves. The proportion of 16-24 year olds who are teetotal has increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013, and binge drinking has fallen by a third. Many reasons have been mooted for this decline; social media, a generation turning away from the habits of their parents and hard-pressed students wanting to get value for their exorbitant tuition fees
instead of blowing it all in the bar, but if it is the case that under-age drinking has been cut (a good thing) then, of course, it would follow that students will find themselves less able to drink responsibly when faced with alcohol in a social situation on their own for the first time.

What should worry us more about the wristbands is that they are indicative of a culture of paternalism that seeks to infantilise students and young people who are of an age where they are considered legal adults. It seems that we aren’t doing enough to help young people to prepare for the challenges of adult life and universities seem to be complicit in this, in terms of attempting to mollycoddle students and treat them as though they were slightly more grown-up sixth formers.

Any experienced parent will tell you that while wanting to protect your children is a laudable instinct, you also need to learn to let go and part of that is allowing children to make their own mistakes and learn from them.

It’s a process that ought to happen from childhood onwards. It may sound harsh but now one of my children has reached the age of seven, if she forgets a vital piece of kit that she needs for school, or leaves a homework book in her class, Mummy no longer covers for her by making extra journeys to bring in or retrieve the needed item. I feel terrible about it because nobody wants to think of their child in needless distress, but it also teaches them something about personal responsibility. If your child gets into trouble for forgetting to bring her homework back from school and is upset about it, chances are she will remember next time.

The same goes for students. I’m not going to pretend that allowing children to drink socially at home from their early teens instils a responsible attitude to alcohol – the odd tipple at home with mum and dad certainly didn’t prevent several episodes of drunkness which have gone down in my family history – but in common with many people, it was going over the top which encouraged future moderation. Having a stonking hangover or making an embarrassment of oneself in public can act as an effective social deterrent. Students need to be able to work these things out for themselves and up until now have always been trusted to do so, with the public and authorities always minded to be indulgent.

I normally get invited to speak at debating societies during Freshers’ Week, where the topic is always sex related and I’m up there as the token Mary Whitehouse figure. One of the things that always strikes me is the table of free condoms outside the event because the universities are so keen to promote safe sex. It’s a similar kind of attitude to the wristband – assuming the worst, that young people will be desperate to have sex with each other and therefore mitigating the risk, without realising that you may actually be planting the seed of recklessness.

Along with the wristbands and condoms is the growth in ‘educational workshops’ being put on during Freshers’ Week, with many universities holding compulsory ‘sexual consent classes’. Other universities, including Oxford and Cambridge are holding workshops covering racial awareness and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality where first-year undergrads will be taught how to avoid sexist or racist ‘micro-aggressions’ against other students. In other words, how not to offend anyone and what the correct language or terminology is to use.

It’s no wonder then, that whenever I come in with statements about abortion or whether or not transgender women are really women, that students stare wide-eyed in surprise and in many cases seem as though they are about to explode in outrage or offence. They have been taught that certain ways of thinking are so wrong and harmful, that they ought not to be expressed. Which is why there has been a movement to suppress pro-life societies on campus, as students who have been through abortion are deemed too fragile be able to cope with the idea that someone might disagree with their decision.

It would be better if we simply let students be students, whether that be allowing them to make drunken mistakes, cause offence to other people and expose themselves to ideas which challenge their preconceptions and beliefs. There’s no evidence that a bit of youthful over enthusiasm or overindulgence, provided it stays within the bounds of the law, irreparably damages you for life. And if you want to insulate your children against rash or impulsive decisions at university, encourage them to join their local Catholic society, where they will be exposed to a type of radical love that various liberal authorities probably would prefer them not to hear about.

• Caroline Farrow is a Catholic journalist and broadcaster

Picture: I don’t feel well. Another fresher starts to understand the consequences of too much alcohol while out in Birmingham for freshers’ week.

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