A Fresh Perspective

 
 

With first years just learning to navigate the campus, Matt Gregg took to the concourse to get some insight into freshers’ opinions and experiences so far

This year, like every other, saw a brand new batch of first years join UCD and the University Observer wanted to get to know every one of them. Unfortunately, to meet and greet with 4,000 students was simply not possible. Instead, this paper conducted a survey during orientation week aimed at getting a snapshot of the lifestyles and opinions of incoming students, exploring their attitudes to everything from sex and drugs, to politics and current affairs. The 700 respondents were also offered the chance to comment on their initial impressions of UCD and their expectations of college life.

“People’s mind sets before college are often that I need to get this exam out of the way and do well in this exam so I can get into college. Once this horrible thing is out of the way, I get to go to this nice thing called college,” said Mícháel Gallagher, Students’ Union Welfare Officer. “For the vast majority, coming into college is a time they finally get to let their hair down, get a bit of independence and perhaps explore new things [they’ve] never explored before.”

When asked for their expectations of college life, one respondent simply scrawled “FREEDOM” across the answer box. To an extent, there can be no more accurate statement. College can seem like a breath of fresh air after the intensity of the Leaving Certificate (or its equivalents), where each full day of class is a constant reminder of external pressures. Want to skip all classes before 11am? No one will stop you. Go out every night of the week? If you’ve the budget, fire away big spender. How about colonising the library in pursuit of a first class honours degree? Load up the coffee and get studying then. It’s your time to use.

Disclaimer: While this survey was carried out in accordance with standard practice and the results make for interesting reading, there is the usual margin of error. This message was brought home quite clearly by the fact that 21% of respondents responded to ‘What county are you from?’ with ‘Ireland’.

Extracurricular Life

College life is notorious for the range of opportunities available outside of lecture theatres and it is clear that this message has not been lost on incoming First Years. Only ten respondents indicated that they did not intend to get involved in any organised facet of non-academic life, an encouraging result. A report released by UCD in 2007 indicated that one of the key reasons for students’ dropping out was a “poor sense of community” and extracurricular involvement is perhaps the best way to address this issue.

Societies proved the most popular form of extra-curricular activity with 96% of respondents indicating they intended be involved in a society. Membership of a sports club was the second most popular option with an intended 84% participation rate. Meanwhile, involvement in student media and student politics finished a distant third and fourth respectively. That the result for society participation proved so high, particularly compared to student media and politics, is perhaps not surprising as it is the broadest category.

From debating to juggling, societies provide the funding and space for the pursuit of a large range of activities. Of course, while ostensibly societies are aimed at exploring an interest or developing a new skill set, they also serve as a great facilitator of new friendships. Notwithstanding the obvious benefits of getting involved, the 96% result appears very high and should perhaps be adjusted. For example, it is likely that an end of year survey would reveal actual involvement figures to be lower. The University Observer’s 2011/2012 survey into extracurricular participation found that while 71% of all undergraduate students joined a society, only 57% actually attended an event during the academic year. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see such good intentions and this publication would be delighted to find participation results as high as 96% by the end of 2012/2013.
Media and Politics
Three quarters of incoming students stated that they kept track of current affairs with television and Facebook being the two most popular main sources of news. Surprisingly, considering the commonly held view that younger generations prefer internet sources to traditional media, more students indicated they read newspapers than online newspapers and over half of respondents indicated they used print media.

While it would be comforting to think these results herald a revival of print media, it is more likely that the survey’s failure to measure frequency of use has skewed the relevant importance placed on each source. Likewise, the survey lacked a way to test for the affect social pressures could have had in encouraging respondents to state they felt informed on current affairs and could mean the figures are inflated. That being said, it is still clear that incoming students consider themselves well informed.

Bearing in mind this high level of interest in current affairs, the figures for student and national politics make for interesting reading. Only 21% of respondents indicated an interest in student politics while 16% indicated they supported a current political party, despite the often cited stereotype of colleges being hubs of political activism. When asked to comment on this low level of interest, Students’ Union Campaigns & Communication Officer Paddy Guiney suggested it might be down to students not realising that “what they see of the traditional parties and the Daíl…is different to student politics.”

He also added that he felt that politics didn’t appeal to young people. “I didn’t have any interest back in first year. It’s hard to imagine when you’re in first year that in three years’ time [you’ll] be up organising the Freshers Tent and the posters along the wall,” said Guiney. “When I used to walk around in first year, I hadn’t a clue what any of this was and now I know exactly who is involved in what.”

Karl Gill, a member of the Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS), agreed in principle that age was a factor, stating that “as people get older they do get more interested”. However, he also felt that the results reflected attitudes towards the current political environment.

“I think generally across the board there are a lot of people who are disenfranchised with the political system and young people probably more so,” said Gill, continuing that his own experience of student politics had not met his expectations. “A lot of people very involved in college life [but] a small number of students involved in politics and political societies; the political debate wasn’t exactly as active as I was expecting it to be.”
Fees
When asked how they thought university should be funded, there was strong support for the Fully Exchequer Funded Model (also known as ‘Free Fees’). The survey found that 45% of respondents supported Free Fees. This was roughly twice as much support as the second most popular option, which was the Student Contribution Fee, with 24% of responses. The Graduate Tax and Full Upfront Fees were the least popular options, receiving only 2% of responses each.

This result would appear to run contrary to the outcome of the Students’ Union preferendum held in May of this year, where a Student Contribution Fee was declared to be the preferred funding model. Guiney stated that, for now at least, the Union would continue to push for the Student Contribution Fee as “that was the policy from the preferendum.”

However, this strong show of support for Free Fees will certainly aid those who believed the preferendum was unrepresentative of the student body at large. It is also interesting to note that the ‘Preferendum’ UCDSU held earlier this year used the proportional representation (PR) system of voting, which is often criticised for being deeply flawed. When you take the ‘Preferendum’ results at face value, they indicate that 34% of students supported Fully Exchequer Funded education, and only 24% of students voted for a Student Contribution Fee.

UCDSU President Rachel Breslin feels this reflects the fact that “principally a lot of people are still Fully Exchequer Funded and that is an ideal situation. But when you get into the current context and the real practical measures, the vote and what students said there makes sense and is a legitimate course of action… I think that while retaining this priciple that we want it to be Fully Exchequer Funded, [but campaigning for Student Contribution Fee] we are allowing ourselves to be reasonable, to enter into negotiations and not just pull back from the table when anything else is mentioned.”

She indicates that a high vote for a Fully Exchequer Funded policy from incoming students may be caused by a number of factors: “I certainly wouldn’t have been aware of the issues, so maybe a certain portion of it is not having been in University, having not seen the huge cutbacks UCD has felt to its core grant and having not been part of the process and still had the contribution fee increased. They wouldn’t have been around for that so they may not have had that kind of angle to the argument. I think that from the first years even that I’ve been speaking to, they’re worried that, if they’re entering a four year degree now, they have almost no idea what the end fee will be and that’s a very scary prospect and it’s a scary prospect for their families too, so I think certainly when you’re entering first year, that’s your desire. Why would you want to have to pay for something?”

Of all the opinions collected, the respondents’ position on university funding is perhaps the most useful in the near future. The question of what funding model universities adopt has been a dominant issue in recent years and will no doubt remain a focus of student politics in 2013. Indeed, if UCD students do vote to disaffiliate from USI in the forthcoming referendum, the 2012/2013 first years could have an even greater say in the direction of future campaigns. This may mean more pressure on the Students’ Union to revert to campaigning for Free Fees.

Personal Values

The freedom on offer at college is appreciated as a great privilege. This freedom allows students to specialise academically only in areas they care for, but is also the reason why college is stereotypically seen as the time for exploring more hedonistic pursuits. Yet, the survey seemed to indicate that this is just a perception as many students had already begun this exploration.

A fifth of respondents stated that they had taken illegal drugs before the start of college and 9% indicated that they expected to take illegal drugs during college. Interestingly, only 1% of respondents who had not taken illegal drugs before college stated that they expected to take illegal drugs during the college year. Of course, it is more than likely that not everyone who has taken illegal drugs in college “expected” to take them but 1% still seems a lower figure than popular media would have led people to believe. Attitudes to drugs also led to perhaps the most unusual statistical results as, despite the fact that there appeared so little demand, the majority of respondents expected it to be easy to obtain drugs at university.

Similarly surprising was the fact that, despite the common association of sexual liberation with college, less than half of respondents expected to become more sexually active in first year. Indeed, a quarter of all respondents indicated that they were not sexually active currently and did not expect to become so in college. Gallagher did not believe, however, that these results removed the need for the Welfare office to make sexual health education a top priority as a precautionary measure. The results seemed to support this as figures suggested less sexual activity among first year students taking on campus accommodation, compared to those students from the greater Dublin area. Additionally, gender affected on responses with males marginally more likely to have responded they were sexually active. This difference became more marked when respondents were asked if they intended to become more sexually active, with 55% of men responding they would compared to 33% of females.

Patterns of alcohol consumption were much more in keeping with expected results with 82% of respondents indicating that they had begun drinking before college. When non-Irish respondents were omitted, this figure rises to 87%, which suggests that patterns of alcohol consumption among Irish youths are already being established prior to college. Respondents were also asked if they believed their consumption would increase during college, with 57% of drinkers believing that it would increase. In contrast, only 17% of non-drinkers believed they would start drinking in college.

“I don’t think that’s a good result,” said Gallagher. “The majority of people here are 18 to 22. That’s a critical time in terms of their own self-development. For Freshers coming in during orientation week, [first year] is such a massive period of transition which can lead to deterioration in mental health. If you look at all the research coming through, there appears to be a direct correlation between problems with mental health and binge drinking. It’s worrying then to hear that over half of students expect to increase their alcohol intake.” It may surprise students to know that more than three pints in one session is considered binge drinking.

Facilities

When asked their opinion of UCD’s campus, it was its sheer size that the majority of respondents noted, with most decribing it as “big”, “spacious” or “huge”. Assessing whether this was advantageous or not was less universal and resulted in an almost even split emerging. On the one hand, there were those who were impressed by its “spacious” nature and liked the “amazing layout of the campus”. Others found the large size to be problematic and complained that there weren’t enough signposts to make the campus navigable. Unsurprisingly, many felt this confusion was amplified by “too much construction work going on”.

With the opening of the brand new student centre this semester, students’ were almost universally impressed by the quality and range of facilities on offer. Indeed, several respondents compared UCD favourably to other third-level institutions they had experienced and indicated that this was the key reason for applying to study here. 75% of our survey indicated that UCD was their first choice.

While UCD undoubtedly has amazing facilities, it will be interesting to see if satisfaction levels remain similarly high by the end of the year. For now, only five respondents complained about the lack of licensed premises but this will no doubt become more of an issue as the year progresses. Additionally, first years mirrored the UCD community at large with frequent complaints that there were simply “not enough parking spaces”. There are plans to introduce a bike scheme, which will please the respondents who made this exact suggestion.

Finally, many respondents felt there was a lack of variety in eating options, particularly in the cheaper price range. This is one side effect of the student bar closure, which used to serve reasonably priced meals, that has so far gone largely unexplored and which leaves students even more dependent on Kylemore Group outlets. Indeed, the price and variety of food is a concern often echoed among other years and could lead to further pressures to re-explore the Kylemore Group near-monopoly on campus. Regardless of what changes are feasible, it remains unlikely that the college will invest in a “McDonalds or Nandos” anytime soon as one respondent had hoped.

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