One of the lazy stereotypes of students is that they spend the day watching Bargain Hunt and Countdown, and the evening downing shots in the students’ union bar before waking the neighbours up when the party carries on back home. But this hardly reflects the reality of modern student life, if it ever did. Coursework, part-time jobs, volunteering and activism are just as important as socialising to a student today.
That said, most stereotypes have an element of truth in them, and for some excessive drinking is part of the student experience. The alcohol culture in the UK goes way beyond universities and colleges, but the social norms of heavy drinking on our campuses are incredibly dangerous, often more than is realised. It’s a serious student welfare issue and I’m proud to be taking action this year with Alcohol Impact.
We’re working in partnership with the Home Office to expand on our existing behavioural change work to create an accreditation mark demonstrating an institution’s commitment to creating a responsible culture around alcohol. This year, seven students’ unions are taking part in the scheme, working on a series of initiatives relating to alcohol consumption, which we believe will make hugely positive impact across the UK.
To be clear, we’re not trying to stop students from drinking altogether. Alcohol Impact is about challenging cultures on campuses which normalise excessive drinking and can sometimes become exclusive to students that don’t wish to take part. It’s about practical things like providing safer transport links, creating alcohol-free social spaces, reducing anti-social behaviour and developing community cohesion with local residents.
Crucially it’s about the institution, students’ union and students working together, because this is something we can only work on collectively. There’s tremendous pressure on students to drink to excess during their time in education. When you consider factors like intensive marketing of cheap booze, alongside deeply entrenched traditions like pre-lashing and initiation ceremonies, it becomes less surprising that an astonishing 85 per cent of students have reported that they think drinking to excess is expected at university.
The negative social and health impacts of alcohol misuse are often associated with older people who’ve been drinking for decades. Yet the dangers for students are often underestimated. The habits we get into during our time in education often continue after leaving the course, not to mention the shorter-term impacts drinking can have on academic achievement and retention rates. And for the small minority who get drunk and become, say, violent or abusive, the impact of a criminal record on your future can be serious indeed. For all these reasons, 40 per cent of students have reported that alcohol has negatively impacted their university or college life.
Nor is this simply an issue of making life better for those who drink. Such a pervasive culture can make campuses feel unwelcoming for those students who may not drink for personal or religious reasons, and they need to feel they can play a full part in university or college life.
We want all students to feel like their campuses are inclusive spaces, and that they can socialise without feeling pressured to drink. We want students to develop healthy habits as they move towards their professional careers and later lives. We want students to be seen to make a positive impact in their local communities and institutions as we know that they do. In short, we want good quality welfare for students across the UK with appropriate and successful support services available to them, just like we always do. And that’s what Alcohol Impact is all about.
- Colum McGuire, NUS Vice President (Welfare).