Archie Bland: Drunk, stripped and thrown in a pond

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The Independent Online

Vomiting with a bag over your head is not most people's idea of a good time, and there's no reason to think that students at the University of Gloucestershire are any different.

Still, there they are, in a video that's prompted an investigation by the institution's authorities: a dozen or so acquiescent young men being silently frogmarched along by someone dressed as a Nazi, and then drinking, and being sick, and drinking some more. They don't look like they're enjoying it. What they look like most of all is prisoners.

And yet they've volunteered for the whole thing. I can't for the life of me think why they would agree to it. I can't for the life of me think why I did, either, when a hefty rugby player approached me during my own Freshers' week a few years ago, and suggested it might be fun to be stripped down to my underwear and thrown in a nearby pond.

Had I had slightly less to drink, or remembered my particularly tatty pair of grey boxer shorts, perhaps I would have thought twice; but I suppose being allowed to wear any pants at all might be seen as a sign of the relative humanity of my tormentors. As it was, 20 minutes later, I tottered out of the freezing water, shrivelled and pale alongside a former US marine and a 6ft 4in Etonian. As scores of my peers hooted their derision, the decision began to seem like a bad one.

Today, I feel basically unscathed by the experience, and at least it prompted a trip to Marks and Spencers in search of slightly less decrepit undergarments. My subsequent contact with the dead-eyed goons who fed each other urine-laced beer and cheerily defecated in the street was limited to baffled glances across the student bar, and one awkward refusal to shake a vomit-covered hand. My university days were greatly enhanced as a result.

Probably very few of said goons feel especially traumatised themselves. There's a school of thought that says that being forced to drink the same mysterious pint of cloudy brown gunk as your companion will forge better friendships than the rest of us can hope for. And as far as it goes, that's fine.

The problem is, it's totally inadequate when it's set against the fates of people like Tom Ward, and Gavin Britton, and Alex Doji, all of whom were filled with astonishing quantities of alcohol by their peers and supposed protectors, and all of whom died as a result. Tragedies of that magnitude are blessedly rare, of course. But we're still stuck with the image that such rituals project.

This week has also seen a row between Oxford University and the government over the dismal shortage of state-school pupils at the best universities, and one of the few things that both sides agree on is that not nearly enough of them are applying. When teenagers think about university, many will think of exclusivity, and hostility, and a group of students with interests that are totally alien to their own, and it isn't hard to see how vomiting with a plastic bag over your head would reinforce that impression.

Students don't spend their days in gowns any more; they don't have to sit their exams in Latin; they aren't all from public schools. And yet some of them still insist on pressurising their peers into humiliating themselves for no better reason than to be part of the gang. In that context, it's hard to see why any sensible teenager would want to go to university at all.

a.bland@independent.co.uk

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