How to curb university binge drinking

Alex Townsend

Drinking at university remains firmly entrenched as part of the UK student experience despite years of alcohol awareness and harm reduction campaigns. Why are behaviours in this area so difficult to shift when the evidence for a need to curb university binge drinking is so compelling?

Alcohol use by UK students

In a survey of undergraduates in seven universities in England found very high rates of dangerous drinking, with 41% identified as ‘hazardous drinkers’, 11% ‘harmful drinkers’ and a further 10% as ‘probably alcohol dependent’. One in five students were likely to have a diagnosable alcohol use disorder (Alcohol and alcoholism, 2011).

A night out starting with pre-drinks at home is usually followed by a “crawl” of pubs and clubs that target students with deals. One bar popular with students in Newcastle, for instance, sells two treble vodkas and a Jager shot for £6.90 (The Tab, 2018). It’s enabling students to get hammered, not have a fun night out.

No uni is immune from binge-drinking culture. “Drinking port out of a condom, vomit on shoes and passing out all feature in tales of Cambridge University's drinking… Each college has a drinking society, and they all have different names, like the Girton Green Monsters and the Jesus Caesarians.” (Cambridge News, 2017).

Drinking as the norm

It’s no surprise that new students away from home for the first time, might want to use alcohol to help overcome those transition nerves.

In the UK, a massive 85% of students agree that drinking and getting drunk is part of university culture (NUS, 2016). It is seen as the norm – and the stats certainly back that up. It’s an expected part of university life.

That’s the problem though. Alcohol use is normalised to such an extent that the myriad of health problems with which it is associated are overlooked (Independent, 2016). Mental and physical health issues, including depression, cancer, heart disease and more (Drinkaware). There are also increased incidences of sexual harassment/assault related to alcohol use (Liverpool John Moores University, 2018).

In a world of conflicting pressures at university, alcohol is so often the tool students use to escape them.

Is it so well accepted that we don’t question it enough? Is it possible to curb university binge drinking?

Many unis have made solid attempts to curb university binge drinking such as banning society initiation rites because of the dangers of alcohol poisoning. Rugby’s governing body, the RFU, has said initiations at university clubs are putting people off playing. Initiations listed by them include eating dog food, drinking vomit and throwing around dead chickens. (BBC, 2017)

When drinking is perceived as the norm, many students can feel obliged to participate in binging behaviour.

It’s important to remember that every drink is a decision and decisions are based on beliefs. Can students’ beliefs and attitudes be turned around?

Drinking as a choice

It may be viewed as the norm, but not everyone drinks. Drinking at uni should not be seen as inevitable.

Generation Z, aka students born between 1996 and 2010, are in fact less likely to drink than any other age group (ONS, 2017).

They possess the lowest levels of alcohol consumption in decades (Vision Critical, 2016). This bunch are far more health conscious than previous generations and 60% express a desire to change the world for the better.

There is real potential to help students practise the healthier behaviours they are showing an interest in.

Many cultures around the world perceive alcohol consumption very differently too. In Spain and Italy for example, alcohol is often served with free food in bars. Why? Because alcohol and food come together. The focus isn’t on ‘getting drunk’; it’s on enjoying yourself and relaxing, but not to the extent of feeling unwell or losing self-control. International students bring with them their own unique perceptions about alcohol and binge drinking.

We need to be highlighting to students that many of their peers and indeed cultures around the world don’t binge drink. We need to present abstinence as an option, so drinking is a choice – not an obligation.

It’s called ‘normalising’ and it’s a powerful behaviour change technique. At Unihealth, we use this and other behaviour change techniques in our content to students, to empower them to make good decisions regarding their health and wellbeing. We believe that behaviour change is the ultimate tool to change students' attitudes about their own drinking. The more students who feel empowered to drink less, the greater the opportunity to curb university binge drinking for good.

To learn more about our digital programme to support university students, drop us a line: [email protected].