The drunken generation

Experts are becoming increasingly worried about heavy drinking on campus. Should universities be doing more to combat the boozy culture? Shola Adenekan reports
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On a Tuesday morning, about a dozen students in colourful tops are handing out flyers to their peers outside Nottingham Trent University, inviting them to events where cocktails sell for as little as £2.50, and a bottle of lager is yours for £1.50. Later that night, drunken students fill the bars and pubs of Nottingham city centre. They are consuming as much cheap booze as they can. The tell-tale signs the next morning are the piles of vomit and half-eaten kebabs dotting the pavements.

On a Tuesday morning, about a dozen students in colourful tops are handing out flyers to their peers outside Nottingham Trent University, inviting them to events where cocktails sell for as little as £2.50, and a bottle of lager is yours for £1.50. Later that night, drunken students fill the bars and pubs of Nottingham city centre. They are consuming as much cheap booze as they can. The tell-tale signs the next morning are the piles of vomit and half-eaten kebabs dotting the pavements.

It is a familiar story at campuses across Britain and does not help the delicate relationship between town and gown. "The use of pubs and dance venues by students has developed a group of commercial outlets that pander to the student population, in terms of the drink provided, food served and music played," says Ron Stone, a councillor and the one-time chair of Bristol City Council's licensing committee.

With two universities in the same city, Bristol faces an influx of 40,000 to 70,000 people to the city centre every weekend. The resulting mess has necessitated the formation of a special early-morning cleaning squad at a cost last year of more than £60,000, says Stone.

Since last summer, when some Oxford University students trashed a local drinking hole as they celebrated the end of the academic session, the drinking habits of students have come increasingly under the spotlight. The issue has also moved up the political agenda, with Tony Blair warning that binge drinking is fast becoming "the new British disease".

Students and drink have always gone hand in hand, but addiction specialists are now worried that patterns of alcohol abuse among students are much more common than in the general public. Experts point out that binge drinking on university campuses is a significant public health problem, linked to poor academic performance, assaults, injuries, rapes and even deaths.

"Students and the rest of the young population are drinking more than any other generation before them," says Andrew McNeill, the director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, an independent educational body that researches alcohol misuse. "The figures have doubled since the 1960s." Surveys suggest that more than eight in 10 students drink, with half of those surveyed regularly partaking in binge drinking. Recent studies also show that after binge drinking, one in seven young people between the age of 16 and 24 had unprotected sex. One in five had sex they later regretted and one in every 10 could not remember if they had sex the night before. In addition, young binge drinkers are three times more likely to commit an offence than those who drink in moderation.

There are two reasons for the increase, according to Gillian Bell of Alcohol Focus Scotland. Booze is now seen as part of the student lifestyle, and students are bombarded with cheap drink promotions."Shops and supermarkets need to take their social responsibility seriously," she says. "Alcohol isn't like any other product on their shelves. Selling cans of cider or beer for as little as 40p is not sending out the right message."

Students agree that alcohol is cheap but emphasise that binge drinking is part of the stress of everyday life. Many start drinking regularly in secondary school. "For many, alcohol is used as a coping mechanism for dealing with the stress of being a student," says Dr Dorothy Newbury-Birch of Newcastle University, an expert in alcohol abuse. "It is part and parcel of the student lifestyle. Many students will not have alcohol problems later but a small minority will."

What is needed is to get alcohol high on the agenda, says Dr Newbury-Birch. An alcohol tsar should be appointed. "Everyone talks about alcohol problems in terms of dependence," she says. "We need to look at the problems of alcohol misuse - getting drunk and getting into fights, having accidents, having unsafe sex and so on.

"As long as it is talked about as a dependency problem, students will view it as something that affects other people. The message to get across is that it is an 'us' problem and not a 'them' problem."

Critics argue that universities need to do more to educate students. Some want university administrators to follow the example of American colleges, which have banned alcohol and its promotion on campuses.

But a spokesperson for Universities UK says that, rather than banning alcohol, it would be more useful to look at ways of encouraging responsible alcohol consumption. In addition, universities might imitate the United States by finding ways to monitor the impact of intervention.

UUK believes that universities should work closely with student unions, because the NUS is one of the biggest retailers of alcohol to students and the income that unions receive from the sale of alcohol funds vital student welfare services. "We are working with the Association of Management of Student Services in Higher Education to update guidelines for universities on drug and alcohol issues facing students," a UUK spokeswoman says. "This will deal with binge drinking in particular and will be published in the summer."

At Oxford University, the institution's committee on student health and welfare has organised seminars on safe drinking for staff. "We are providing opportunities to hear from outside experts and to exchange views on the best way to deal with the problems associated with drunkenness," a member of the committee says. "We recommend that prices should be low enough to encourage students to drink in the safe college environment rather than in the city, but not so low as to encourage excessive consumption; that non-alcoholic drinks should be available at a low price; and that alcohol should not be served at lunchtime."

Other universities claim that attitudes are changing as a result of the increasing diversity of the student body. Dr Peter Knight, the vice-chancellor at Birmingham's University of Central England, says the fact that his students come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and age groups means that the emphasis on alcohol has diminished.

"Income from our student bars has tended to fall in recent years," he says. "Sales of beers are down, while sales of alcopops and soft drinks appear to be up." In addition, the student union bars have ceased to offer happy hours.

The NUS and the drinks industry say they are now educating students about alcoholism. Last year, the NUS launched the first national campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of having your drink spiked. Helen Symons, the NUS vice-president, believes that student binge drinking is being exaggerated. "In an age of increased financial pressure, students are more likely to be found working behind a bar than drinking in front of it," she says.

However, the NUS does recognise that students can suffer from alcohol-related problems and runs campaigns to alert students to the dangers of binge drinking. Some students wonder, however, whether these go far enough. "I think that to reduce the alcohol intake of young people they'll have to use extreme shock tactics," says Laura Sheldon, a regular drinker and a student at Queen Mary, University of London.

"If students were shown the dangers of being drunk - like rape, getting attacked, mugged, and so on - that might work."

A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF STUDENT DRINKERS

Ben Travitzky, 18, is studying for a degree in English literature at Queen Mary, University of London:

Monday - four to five pints at the student union

Tuesday - four to five pints at the union followed by a night out at the pub

Wednesday - no drinking

Thursday - not much drinking

Friday - a bottle and half of wine, and maybe some spirits in a club

Saturday - small bottle of vodka and mixers, some shots, maybe a cocktail

Sunday - no drinking

Adam Goldsmith,21, is studying public relations at Leeds Metropolitan University

"I go out four to five times a week. My nights consist of consuming a few drinks at home or at a local bar in Headingley to "warm up". I then hit a few more bars around the area or head into Leeds city centre, where I visit another one or two bars before finishing off at a club or promotion night.

In each venue, I'll have up to two drinks - Coronas or Spirit mixers - but when I'm in the club I'll drink up to eight drinks. Each night, my alcohol intake is about 40 units. So I guess that's about 160 a week.

Laura Sheldon, 19, studying English literature, Queen Mary, University of London

On Mondays, the student union pub does discount drink offers (£1 a pint), so I often have three or four pints of red beer (snakebite with blackcurrant cordial).

Tuesday - no drink.

Wednesday is a Ministry of Sound student night. I drink half a bottle of wine, then share two jugs of cocktails between four at Wetherspoon's and maybe one more drink in Ministry, if they are doing a drinks promotion.

Thursday - no drinking.

Friday - a couple of glasses of wine. Depending on where I go, I may have one or two more.

Saturday - no drinks.

education@independent.co.uk

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