IN a 2016 survey conducted by The Tab, the University of Exeter ranked as number 16 in a list of the UK’s heaviest-drinking universities. This ranking may easily have changed by now, but there is still no disputing that out of roughly 150 universities across the UK, Exeter is certainly up there as having some of the heaviest student drinkers. The topic of excessive drinking is on everyone’s minds after the recent inquest into the death of a 20-year-old Newcastle University student who died after a night out in December 2016. Alcohol is very closely linked with university; the legal drinking age is 18, and it is roughly around that age that many people go to university. Of course, I don’t pretend that students have never drunk alcohol before they come to university and many people are already familiar with alcohol and the effects that come along with it. However, with university comes a freedom often not afforded at home. At university, there are no parents waiting to nag you or tell you off for how much you’ve had to drink and sometimes, no one sober enough to look after you if you really need it.
With the freedom of university comes the responsibility of having to moderate yourself and this is where the problem lies.
A survey of undergraduates across seven universities in England revealed that over 50% of students were either hazardous or harmful drinkers, and a further 10% were “probably alcohol dependent”. This individual responsibility and autonomy is only made harder when societies and groups begin to have initiation-style events. In 2006, an 18-year-old student at Exeter died following an initiation ceremony for the Golf Club, and following the inquest, the University banned all student society initiation ceremonies. On top of this, students in the Athletic Union have to sign a code of conduct, specifically aimed at reducing the drinking culture closely connected with sports teams.
However, the question remains of whether this rule is still being enforced today, or whether enough time has passed that the university is beginning to slip back into its old ways. In the last few months, both the Exeter University Rugby Football Club and the Hockey Club have come under attention for alcohol related incidents. Yet the pressure to drink in social situations such as sports socials is not unique to one team or club, but rather is is endemic across societies as a part of university culture. It is important here to note that drinking as part of a team or society is not by any means wrong in itself and is both fun and inclusive if done safely.
The problem starts to arise when people feel like they have to drink to conform or to be included.
Alcohol is not necessary to have fun and make friends, no matter how much it might feel like that sometimes. Speaking to a friend who recently decided to stop drinking (with the exception of a glass or two at special occasions) it became clear that alcohol can very easily become a crutch to lean on for people who are perhaps less confident in social situations. An alcohol dependency is no less a problem because it is present in a student, stereotypically viewed as an almost comically alcohol-dependent individual. It doesn’t have to manifest in typical ways, but rather can be something as subtle as drinking at any social situation to boost confidence and feel more relaxed.
It is very hard to find a solution to these problems. Do we ban alcohol completely? No. Frankly, that’s ridiculous and will only encourage illegal alcohol consumption and fear of seeking help should a problem arise. Can we measure alcohol consumption and cut people off when they’ve had too much? Again, no. This simply isn’t practical.
So, what can we do? It takes something big to scare people into taking action. A fellow student, who would prefer to remain anonymous, told me that after they ended up in A&E highly intoxicated and barely lucid twice inside a 12-month period, they decided to take a break from drinking. Honestly, I’m unsure exactly what the best solution is here. We can educate people on the dangers of drinking but most students already know them, we just choose to ignore them. We can make sure to enforce punishment for any one person or any society that pressures people either physically or emotionally into consuming alcohol. We can make it clear that alcohol can be consumed safely and in moderation while still giving the buzz and feeling that everyone is after but really, it’s no quick fix and any solution will take time and effort on everyone’s parts to form. It needs to happen, though – and perhaps before we see something worse than a trip to A&E.