Education: Students and drink: have the Puritans taken over the bar?

Today's students are being told to watch their boozing. The latest initiative being launched next month seeks to educate students about safe drinking levels. Frank Furedi thinks we are in danger of mollycoddling. Getting plastered is part of learning about life, he says, and campus alcohol awareness campaigns infantalise students.

Safe drinking on British campuses has become the latest cause promoted by worthy educators and keen student bureaucrats. Last year, vice-chancellors and and college principals issued a lengthy guideline on alcohol and drugs policies. And Freshers Week last October was marked by numerous initiatives to warn impressionable young students off a life of excessive drinking.

Furthermore, it was announced last week that the drinks industry body the Portman Group has joined forces with the National Union of Students to launch a campaign to raise student awareness about safe drinking levels. Launched during the third week in February, that campaign aims to promote the sensible consumption of alcohol.

Sam, a fourth-year student and part-time barman in our college, is bemused by all the anti-alcohol propaganda. During the past four years, he has noticed a discernible drop in alcohol consumption among students. "Weekend drinking is definitely out as more and more students go home to stay with their parents," he says. Pointing to the till, he observes that "our takings are down from previous years".

Jo and Pam confirm Sam's impressions. After graduating in 1991, they have returned to their old haunt - Keynes College Bar - for a reunion with old friends. According to Pam, the place has turned into a morgue. Jo looks distinctly puzzled. "Where has everyone gone for their drink?" she asks.

Anti-alcohol campaigners dispute the claim that alcohol abuse is growing on campus. It has no basis in empirical research, they say. Certainly anyone who has been around universities for more than a decade will have plenty of anecdotes to contest such claims. There was a time not so long ago, when drinking was one of the defining features of undergraduate life. "Getting plastered was what it was all about," recalls Pam.

Certainly, the idea that student unions would be in the business of policing the drinking habits of students would have been unthinkable in the Seventies and Eighties. Numerous student officials self-consciously cultivated the image of the archetypal "pisshead". Many a passionate speech was delivered at union meetings with a can of Newcastle Brown in hand.

It is difficult to be sure when the officially promoted Puritanism entered campus life. Almost imperceptibly, student unions have emerged as guardians of campus morality. A clear symptom of this shift was the student alcohol awareness campaign launched by the NUS in September 1995. As Sam says: "All of a sudden the bar was inundated with student union flyers telling people how much they could drink." Most students ignored the leaflets and carried on drinking.

Matters became more heated at Sam's college when a guideline issued by the student union and the university hospitality services banned bar staff from selling students wine by the bottle. Students who had got used to taking a bottle back to their room after closing hours were outraged by this measure. Two weeks after this ban, student pressure reversed this curb.

Attempts to introduce anti-alcohol measures were introduced at other universities. At Exeter, the decision to ban Snakebite (a popular, cheap but potent mixture of cider and lager) provoked outrage and had to be reversed. Elsewhere, the crusade against alcohol has met with some success. Last October, the Pyjama Jump - Britain's biggest student charity rag, organised by Sheffield undergraduates - was banned.

Although alcohol awareness campaigns often adopt the rhetoric of health promotion, they are essentially moralistic. The NUS's Big Blue Book of Booze, published to launch its alcohol awareness campaign, reads like a trendy version of Reefer Madness.

Its main message is that getting drunk is an anti-social, deviant activity. "If alcohol were to be discovered today it would almost certainly be as illegal as heroin," warns the NUS.

This attempt to stigmatise drinking and to equate alcohol with hard drugs also characterises the CVCP guidelines published last year. The message of safety, responsibility and restraint are the sentiments deemed to be virtuous by the new breed of professional moralisers.

What has precipitated the present wave of student alcohol awareness campaigns? Why has it become necessary to make students aware of alcohol? And why is it necessary to use scare tactics which equate alcohol with heroin? That questions like these are rarely asked indicates a tendency to regard undergraduates as children whose lives requires careful monitoring.

Some of my colleagues are at loss to understand what they consider to be my "over-reaction" to the campaign. After all, what's wrong with a few leaflets that outline the government benchmark for safe drinking? No lecturer wants his students to arrive in class bleary-eyed and hung over. The problem with the "few leaflets" is that it helps to contribute to a climate that discourages experimentation.

It may be the case that young undergraduates arriving on campus have a lot to learn about drinking as well as other things. Learning about life has always been an important part of university education.

When students learn about life, they sometimes go too far and engage in activities they may regret later. And it is precisely experiences like getting drunk or feeling lonely and depressed that force students to learn about themselves and become aware of their strengths and weaknesses.

Two of my students, Jane and Laura - one now a successful banker, the other a social worker - have recalled their student excesses. Both say they learnt the freedom to draw up their own rules rather than to live life according to a bureaucratic formula. They point out that you learn who you are and which situations to avoid.

Moralistic campaigns about safe drinking insulate students from experiences that eventually turn them into mature adults. Why? Because they contribute to the creation of a climate where helpful advice suffocates experimentation. Such campaigns are about regulation and extending restraints that used to be associated with childhood.

The writer is reader in sociology at the University of Kent and the author of `The Culture of Fear', published last year by Cassell.

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