Just an Orange Juice for Me

6th September 2019

Your university years are supposed to be a wild time, right? Spreading your wings, sowing your wild oats, drinking yourself senseless. Maybe once – but not any more. Statistics show that despite a reputation for drunken debauchery, more students than ever are reducing their alcohol intake. A 2018 NUS survey discovered that young people (not necessarily students) are now the most likely age group to forswear drink entirely: 27% of 16-24 years are teetotal, compared to 21% of the wider adult population. The figures also revealed, however, that young people who do drink are more likely to binge, rather than consume little and often like older generations. Heather Harris investigates…

Heading off to University my son had a major problem. There was something about him that he worried he would have to hide for three years, for fear of being ostracised by his fellow students. Not that it was contagious – just socially unacceptable, particularly among young people. And they were all living under the same roof so he was seriously worried about how he – and they – would cope.

You see, Sam aged 19, had never drunk alcohol. And I mean never. When his beloved Watford FC got promotion, my husband bought Sam his first pint – he took one sip, shuddered and gave it to his younger brother (aged 15 and already a veteran of a-seven-sweet-sherries-at-Christmas incident and a suspiciously minty breath after parties).

So how on earth was Sam going to cope at University, where Freshers’ Week is anecdotally a seven-day hangover? It’s a problem not only for the students but also the educational establishment themselves, who are all desperate to avoid any repetition of the tragic case of Ed Farmer, a 20-year-old in his first year at Newcastle University, who died in 2016 from alcohol poisoning, after an ‘initiation-style’ bar crawl that resulted in him being five times over the legal drink drive limit. The case prompted the coroner to state that a copy of his report ‘would be made available to Newcastle University, its students’ union, Universities UK, the Department for Education, the National Union of Students and the Department of Health, calling for first-year students to be given better teaching on the dangers of binge drinking.

And it does seem that the drinking culture has indeed been watered down. According to a report by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2018, ‘More than one in five students say they are teetotal’. The study, involving 2,200 university students, found that 21 per cent said they did not drink alcohol – and more than two-thirds (70 per cent) thought students only drank alcohol to fit in with their peers.

That belief is backed up by my own son. He discovered that, once he had made clear he didn’t want to be ‘cajoled’ into drinking, his alcohol-loving flatmates at the University of Hertfordshire accepted his decision.

“Perhaps I was just lucky, but I did find that as long as you didn’t make a big deal out of it and didn’t judge other people for their drinking, then generally people just accepted it,” he says.

Lauren, who graduated from the University of Kent in 2017, was not so fortunate. She found that loneliness was a problem from the start, because so many activities revolved around drinking. “Freshers’ Week was the worst because everyone is obsessed about going out and drinking, so I spent a lot of time on my own.”

Eva Crossan Jory, Vice President of Welfare for the NUS, admits, “We do need to foster more responsible drinking cultures amongst students and offer more events and activities which aren’t centred on drinking, that everyone can enjoy.”

Ross – now in his third year at the University of Reading – recalls that during the first weeks when everyone was going out drinking he made sure he went along his corridor and sought out the people who had also chosen to stay in. “ We then set up our own film society where we would regularly congregate in someone’s room to watch a movie.”

He also confirms that the University itself did have a whole society dedicated to non-drinkers. “There was definitely support for us. No official organised event was allowed to endorse heavy drinking, so even those societies normally associated with partying did put on plenty of other stuff.”

Bristol Students Union has expanded its non-alcohol programme after a plant-potting workshop last year was a success. And Leeds University has introduced classes on how to make pottery and organised coffee mornings to meet a demand for activities that don’t mean the following day is written off with a hangover.

Sport is also encouraged, with many Universities investing in state-of-the-art facilities to encourage students to lift bars rather than frequent them. For 20-year-old Ella, heading for the swimming club when her flatmates headed for the nightclub provided the friendships she initially lacked.

And some Universities including St Andrews, Aberdeen, Chester, Bristol, Canterbury Christ Church and the University of the West of England –- have gone one step further and introduced ‘Alcohol-Free’ accommodation. Steve Bargeton at St Andrews University tells me that over 400 students applied for this option last year, exceeding the 132 rooms available.

“The reality is the make up of our intake has changed to include more under 18s and a wider range of religions where alcohol is forbidden,” he explains. “Students are also becoming more health-conscious and concerned about the financial burden of living independently. Many simply can’t afford to drink!”

He adds that university is all about ‘finding your tribe’ – and with the increasing number of non-drinkers the chance of finding a like-minded, orange juice sipper or tea aficionado is far more likely in 2019 than it was even five years ago.

Mohamed, a 19-year-old Aberdeen University student, told the BBC that he loved living in alcohol-free halls of residence. “I could still meet loads of other people and get involved in activities. Some of my other non-drinking friends went straight into private accommodation and they missed out as they were living so far away from campus.”

As a Muslim, Mohamed is teetotal on religious grounds. For Shaun it was rather more complex: “I quickly discovered in my first weeks at uni that I become violent when drinking. I scared myself, so made a conscious decision to give up totally, but it was hard and I do think alcohol-free accommodation would have helped.”

But Georgia disagrees. Despite being offered this option at Plymouth, she declined, “I feel I would have been judged when I told them where I lived and subject to more scrutiny about ‘why don’t you drink?” she says.

Manchester University has attempted to offer more of a ‘half-way house’ with their Lifestyle Moderated Areas. As their Accommodation Office Manager, Paul Burns explains, “We do not envisage being able to guarantee a permanently quiet or alcohol-free environment but by grouping like-minded people together it is hoped we can at least provide a ‘space’ where a moderated lifestyle might flourish”.

Surely, this is the way forward. Like everything in life – moderation seems to be the key. The death of Ed Farmer highlights the fatal consequences of excess but it would be naïve to think it would result in all students choosing total abstinence.

All we can hope is that university life can also be enjoyed with a clear head and a frothy coffee and not just through a pair of beer goggles.

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