The reception of new students – formerly known as nollning (literally ‘zeroing’, referring to the new students’ status at the start of their studies) – is an academic tradition that goes a long way back in time. In the beginning, the tradition involved cruel and humiliating practices. Needless to say, the nature of the reception has changed today. The elements of cruelty are gone and the activities aim to make the new students feel truly welcome. The very term nollning is outdated and plays no part in modern activities. These days we talk about the freshers’ reception, welcoming week and kick-off.

Nollning in the 17th century

A kind of nollning called deposition existed as early as the 17th century. It was an initiation rite that all new students were forced to go through.

The older students used deposition tools – tongs, a saw and a plane – to symbolically remove the incoming student’s bestial, uncouth nature. Finally, the person leading the ceremony poured salt on the new student’s tongue, threw wine over his head and declared that he was now a free student. This was followed by a year of servitude to an older student.

The deposition ceremony and the subsequent year of bullying quickly spiralled out of control, and deposition was banned in 1691.

Painting depicting students torturing new students during nollning long ago

In the 17th century, the prospective student was dressed up in multi-coloured clothes, given horns, donkey ears and boar tusks, and herded with an axe before an audience who mocked him. Image: University Library.

A deposition tool that looks like an axe displayed on a white cloth

Deposition tools from the 17th century, now in Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum.

Orientation of new students today

Today the University, together with more senior students, organises a welcoming orientation for new students. Nollning no longer exists.

Although these receptions can include initiation rites that may appear to have features in common with what went on in the 17th century, they now take quite different forms. Bullying is naturally banned and the purpose of orientation is for the students to get to know each other, feel welcome, and have fun together.