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
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
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,
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
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
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
Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998