Petting zoos, abstinence and speed-friending: how university Freshers’ Weeks got woke

The students of Generation Z are more interested in wellness fairs and yoga than sambuca and alcopops. What on Earth will their parents think?

When you think of typical student pastimes, your thoughts may turn to sambuca shots, alcopops that look like window cleaner, bad dancing, worse hangovers and ham-fisted attempts at pulling. What probably doesn’t spring to mind is a wholesome day down the petting zoo. This, though, is precisely what the wide-eyed first-years got up to at Durham University last year.

Meg Haskins, Welfare and Liberation Officer at the university, says that the event “was really, really popular”. What, and people just turned up to, like, stroke the animals? “Yeah – I’m pretty sure there was a goat. There were geese. There were rabbits. Yeah, there were all sorts.”

It’s a different kind of fresh meat, that’s for sure, but one that indicates a growing wholesomeness that has taken hold of Freshers’ Weeks up and down the country. A study from the Office of National Statistics recently found that just approximately 50% of 18-to 24-year-olds had drunk alcohol in the previous week. In 1999, by comparison, the Home Office found that four out of five people aged 18 to 24 had consumed alcohol in the previous week.

In August, it was reported that sales of non-alcoholic beer have increased by 58% year-on-year. No wonder Generation Z (those born between the mid-‘90s and early-noughties) have been nicknamed ‘Generation Sensible’.

This increasing trend for youthful abstinence has been reflected on campuses, with bar crawls and club nights being replaced by day trips and activities you might more readily associate with a Saga Holiday. The University of Hull has rebranded Freshers’ Week as ‘Welcome Fest’.

Old-school freshers having a right old knees-up

“It’s giving people the opportunity to start again” – Andy Costigan, President of Welfare and Community, The University of Hull

When NME calls near-teetotal 20-year-old Shannon Ryle, a Drama and Theatre Practise undergraduate at the University of Hull, at 11am on Tuesday morning, the conversation is interrupted by a knock on her door. “That’s my flatmate,” she laughs. “When I’m off the phone to you, we’re gong to a Welcome Fest event with a chocolate fountain. There’s no drinking there. Hopefully just a really nice chocolate fountain.”

At Sheffield Hallam University, when they’re not perusing the vegan market (returning thanks to a surprise smash-hit debut last year), freshers are welcome to attend yoga and pilates classes at the decidedly wholesome Lifestyle Fair. The University of Southampton offers its newcomers the chance to learn Latin and Ballroom dancing – a far cry from the shapes you’d typically expect to see thrown across a Student Union at two O’clock in the morning.

The University of Hull found that 60% of its students don’t relate to the word ‘freshers’ – hence the rebrand in 2013. “When I started three years ago,” says Andy Costigan, the university’s President of Welfare and Community, “I definitely noticed that there were alternative events to what I might have expected when I was 18. But now I’ve seen a definitive increase [in non- traditional freshers’ events].” In 2016, the decision was made to open the Student Union night club just one night a week, as, he explains, “we had the general attendance numbers going down.”

Instead, Welcome Fest focuses on days out to nearby towns (“I keep meeting people who say, ‘Oh, I really wanted to go on that trip to Scarborough, but all the tickets have been sold’”) and even a ‘Speed Friending’ event, where freshers meet potential pals to see if they bond against the clock.

Costigan sounds surprised when NME suggests the latter activity might be a bit tongue-in-cheek: “I don’t think it’s tongue-in-cheek. I think there’s a genuine want and requirement for it. The event sold out. It’s an opportunity for people to meet, where maybe they wouldn’t have done organically, on campus.”

The emphasis, he explains, is on inclusivity. Some of those surveyed simply didn’t relate to the term ‘fresher’, while others rejected it as post-graduate students or mature students with children: “At other universities, students don’t engage with what their union calls a ‘Freshers’ Fair’ because they don’t feel like it applies to them.” By contrast, Welcome Fest is “an open and inviting and accessible” event for people who might otherwise miss out on a couple of weeks’ fun. “We wanted it to be a festival of welcome,” he says. “It’s giving people the opportunity to start again.”

Sales of non-alcoholic beers are up 58% year-on-year

An opportunity to start again – well, that’s precisely what Freshers’ week has always been, isn’t it? That might mean being accepted on your own terms; some Student Unions now offer badges bearing personal pronouns, which trans or non-binary students use to convey their preferred terms. Meg Haskins introduced pronoun badges at Durham University this year.

“I was at one of the Leeds Unions over the summer,” she says, “and they had pronoun badges. I think they’re becoming more common. I was quite keen to have that as an official thing in Durham – to normalise it, so that it’s not about othering people.” The university’s LGBT+ Association previously offered pronoun stickers, but she wanted to align the idea with the Student Union. “I think that’s the best way to make it a more normal, every day occurrence,” she explains, “rather than a special thing that one group of students were doing.”

Inclusivity is also consciously extended to the teetotallers. “I would definitely say that the variety of events for non-drinkers has improved,” Haskins says. “There’s less of a thing where it’s just, ‘Oh, we’ll put a film on. And you can all just sit and watch a film in a quiet room.’ In my first year, that was what it was like for all the non-drinking events. Whereas now there’s more of an understanding that it’s OK not to drink. I think that’s really important.”

On campus at Durham, Haskins sees that “there’s a growing trend people are feeling more able to just say, ‘No – I just don’t drink, and that’s kind of fine.’ Asked why bar crawls and chundering might be falling out of fashion like a yesteryear fresher tumbling out of a provincial indie disco, she alludes to increased collective understanding of mental health.

“Particularly in the last year or two,” she says, “there’s been growing awareness about the relationship between [alcohol and drugs] and mental health. People are more and more aware of their own mental health and the idea of caring for yourself, and not wanting to put yourself in a situation that is going to be detrimental to you. I think it’s a changing culture, really.”

This changing culture has manifested in various ways across universities. At Durham, the student branch of mental health charity Mind organises non-drinking events. Sheffield Hallam appoints ‘Mental Health Ambassadors’ who receive mental health training (what to look out for, how to speak to someone at risk) and Hull runs a Welfare & Opportunities Fair, attended by Samaritans, Mind and the Wakefield-based male suicide charity Andy’s Man Club.

Hard-drinking students of yesteryear

If you’re at all sceptical about ‘Generation Sensible’, University of Hull’s Shannon Ryle ­– who says she’s near-teetotal simply because “I don’t enjoy my evening any more if I drink alcohol” – couldn’t care less. “People of my parents’ generation,” she says, “when I tell them, ‘Oh, I’m going to uni and I don’t drink,’ say stuff like, ‘Oh, you’re going to have to learn.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m telling you that I will not be drinking. I’m not telling you that I’m gonna be persuaded into it.’ It’s annoying because it feels like my opinion is not being respected.”

Young people from every generation need to confound their parents – it’s part of the job description. And if that means shunning booze, so be it. Anyway, it’s not like every student in the country is practicing yoga while dreaming of a bracing walk down the north Yorkshire coastline.

When NME calls Joseph Shepherd, a 19-year-old Film Studies BA student at The University of Hull, he’s recovering from the kind trad-fresher’s night out that Shannon’s parent’s generation may sanction: drinking games (hooked around a boxing videogame round his mate’s house – when you lost a match, you necked a shot) and mainstream local club The Piper.

He’s only been in Hull a week. And this is an ancient ritual, a short-cut to making friends. Have a drink or two, feel more confident, do something daft, spend the next morning sniggering with your new mates about how fantastically silly you were the night before. Does he think some freshers are missing out on any of this when they opt for the petting zoo instead?

Short answer: no. “If you’re confident enough that it’s not for you,” he says, “then good for you.”

Joseph explains, however, that the traditional route to freshers’ nirvana has been enlightening for him: “I really hadn’t had that much experience of this before, you know. In sixth form, I was a bit of an outcast. They were studying Biology and Chemistry and I’m there writing scripts and shooting short films. I never got invited to college parties, so when I came to uni, it was the first time I’d been properly exposed to alcohol. I’ve found it a really positive experience. I’ve made lots of friends.”

“People are more and more aware of their own mental health” – Meg Haskins, Welfare and Liberation Officer, Durham University

So, the Freshers’ Week – or Welcome Fest – of 2018 is a broad church. There’s still the chance to do sambuca shots through your eyeballs (please don’t), if that happens to be your bag, but equally you can befriend a goat instead. Ellen Holmes, Sports Club Programme Leader at Sheffield Hallam, says that this shift in focus comes from the universities as much as the students.

“It’s also the university wanting to distance themselves from alcohol, nights out and drinking culture,” she says. “It’s a bit of both, really. I think part of it’s reputational damage. You know how some stuff goes viral really quickly, in the newspaper, where students are vomming all over the streets and stuff like that? Part of it is the Students Union being a bit cautious of that. But I think part of it as well is that they’ve got a duty of care with mental health.”

Sheffield Hallam has closed its Student Union club, partly through lack of demand; a symptom of a shifting culture, brought on by a combination of increased understanding of mental health, sky-high tuition fees (Hull’s Andy Costigan says “there’s a big number of students who just want to focus on their degree”), universities spooked by the viral age and good-old fashioned resistance to the previous generation’s values. It’s easy to snigger at ‘Generation Sensible’, but maybe they’re onto something.

Meg Haskins, now in her fourth year at the University of Durham, says she’s learned from younger students how to better manage her own anxiety, which she now tries harder to address head-on, instead of masking her feelings with alcohol. This, surely, is the definition of ‘woke’.

“There’s a lot more self-reflection going on,” she says, “trying to unpack the things going on in our heads, rather than putting a plaster over it. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but there’s a growing trend of people being more aware, which is what we need. That shift in culture takes time. But it’s a good start.”