Build it and they will come: the origins of Freshers

Jon Rainford and Nik Morris, members of the CEC in 2012–2014, tell us their story about how Freshers at the Students Association became a success.

Jon Rainford, VP Education Support and Research, 2012–14 – now Associate Lecturer 

Many of you reading this might not be able to imagine a world without Freshers. An exciting and vital part of the OU students’ year. Back in 2009, when I started as an OU student, things were very different. 

I loved my time as an OU student, but it is very different from attending a brick university. Historically, for many students, this was less of a concern. When the OU started, it was primarily an institution of second chances for those who had missed out on going to university. There were forums to build connections with other students, but as technologies changed, their usage for non-module activities seemed to drop away.  

During my time on the CEC from 2012–14, we also saw the type of students joining shift, from later-life learners to something with a greater proportion of under 25s. The challenge for the Students Association was how to ensure that this new wave of students had the support they expected from a student body, and felt that the Association catered for them as well. Whilst we had several well-established societies, historically we did not have anything like the famed Freshers Weeks these young students expected to help them understand what their student bodies could offer, and to find out about all those societies.  

Thankfully we had expert help in thinking through what these new students wanted in the form of Beth, the daughter of our VP Representation, Nik Morris. Through letting us see the Association from her perspective, she helped us identify some of the ways in which we needed to adapt to cater for this very different audience. Our goals for the first iterations of Freshers were modest – to inform and engage a wider demographic of students with what the Students Association could offer. Initially piloting it on something resembling your module websites in February 2012, we quickly shifted to a more accessible home on the website, which enabled far richer and interactive content to be included. This enabled the first full Freshers to have live Q&As – something which lives on today – as-well as the first ever student radio broadcast, 

In that first year, we managed to gain 23,000 unique web visits which was quite something, and according to the reports from the archive, we sold out of many of the offerings in the OU Students Shop! Gladly this impact seems a drop in the ocean today thanks to the countless dedicated OU students’ staff, volunteers and student reps who have continued to build on its legacy and have turned that spark of an idea into an eternal flame in the Association calendar. If there is one lesson to be taken from this, it is that if there is something that you wish the Association offered that doesn’t currently exist, maybe you can create some new sparks that grow similarly for future OU students.  

 (Left to right) Beth Morris, Ruth Tudor, Jon Rainford Nik Morris and Carol Radcliffe

Nik Morris, VP Representation, 2012–14, and Deputy President, 2014–16 

It’s amazing what can come from a simple, off-the-cuff, remark.  

Back in 2012 one of my daughters started studying with the OU. When she gained access to her StudentHome page, she naturally had lots of questions about where to locate things, how things worked, what could she do and when etc. The timing of her enrolment coincided with major changes to funding in tertiary education, which led to an increase in younger students, like my daughter, signing up with the OU (previously the average age of OU students was 40+). Her very simple comment – “I’m glad I’ve got you to ask where everything is and how studying at the OU works – otherwise I’d be lost before I start” – sparked a thought. With that increase in younger students, and the lack of anything like Freshers in place at the OU, it looked like this was something we could arrange via the Students Association.  

We had many discussions with other Association officers and staff, and somehow, in a short space of time, an initial pilot project was put together. Jon and I, as VP Education Support and Research and VP Representation respectively, were given the brief to oversee the project with the aid of two key members of Association staff, Wendy Burrell and Jess Smith (with a lot of support from other staff members). We came up with some fairly outrageous ideas between us – things that the Association had never attempted before – yet we managed to create a successful pilot that led to a full-scale event for the autumn intake of students. I think from that moment the Association never looked back. Jon has given some facts and figures, but I can say that we were overwhelmed with the success of the pilot project and the amount of engagement with the student membership that the project produced.  

As an odd coincidence, the OU had become aware of a lack of support for new students, so had started working on their Student Hub Live project. This was serendipitous timing as it enabled the Association to support the OU, and the OU to support the Association. Both of these projects are still going strong, and provide a huge amount of useful information and support. 

As a past officer of the Students Association, it’s wonderful to see the Freshers events be so successful and a wonderful resource for new (and existing) students.  

What of the daughter who sparked this idea off? She’s back studying with the OU this year after a couple of years’ break, and until today hadn’t realised that it was her comment that set the train in motion! 

Visit the Freshers microsite!

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The Editorial team.


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