Are universities really combating binge-drinking culture?

May 10, 2017
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Every student knows that alcohol is a big part of uni life. We’ve grown up seeing it on television, we’re warned about it by our parents and we’re confronted with it from the outset during our orientation weeks.

It’s mainstream, expected and even looked forward to, but has this normalisation of alcohol consumption stimulated a culture of binge-drinking amongst Australian students? And what, if anything, are our universities doing about it?

Over a third of uni students are drinking at hazardous levels

There’s nothing wrong with the occasional pint after a long day at uni. We deserve it, right? But this is the mindset that leads to the binge-drinking culture that is seemingly entrenched in our university institutions, something half of male and over a third of female students are doing at hazardous levels, a 2012 study finds.

Researchers at Perth’s Curtin University surveyed 13,000 university undergraduates and found that students who regularly binge-drink were at higher risk of academic impairment, sexual assault, injury, property damage and interpersonal violence.

As the first Australian study into hazardous alcohol consumption among the general Australian university population, the findings calls for more university programs that effectively target binge-drinking in the undergraduate student community.

The issue is to change the way people perceive having fun socially, and colleges are the problem here.

Uni campaigns against binge-drinking are rare and often non-existent

Through the National Binge Drinking Strategy, the Australian Government sought to address youth binge-drinking by funding uni initiatives that were combat alcohol culture among students.

Institutions like the University of Western Australia have implemented strategies that teach the dangers of excessive drinking behaviours through alcohol intervention training, educational events, drug action groups and counselling services. 

However, when asked to comment on their own university’s programs that teach responsible drinking behaviours, many students said that if their university had these campaigns, they were uncommon and inconsequential.

“We did have a seminar that had something to do with alcohol, but I think we all took alcohol in water bottles and played buzzwords,” says Tessa Jones*, a former student at La Trobe University.

Drinking regularly is normal and even encouraged by discounted student bars

Many students say educational campaigns surrounding binge-drinking are unsuccessful because unis are not approaching the issue or their students in the right way, causing many students to ignore the anti-drinking message.

A study conducted by the University of Tasmania in 2012 performed focus groups with 43 students at Tasmanian residential colleges and found that alcohol consumption was a deep-rooted and highly regarded aspect of college life.

“It’s considered pretty normal to go out drinking at least once a week. College parties are common and supply large amounts of alcohol”, says Madison Organa*, a current undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne and former college resident.

When college parties and uni events aren’t on the agenda, students head to bars and clubs close to campus that offer booze on a student budget.

“Most of us went to bars or clubs around campus on weeknights when they offered cheap or free entry to students. We actually drank more during the week than on weekends for this reason” says Katherine Michaels*, a former University of Melbourne student and college resident.

There are huge ramifications on the whole community and universities can take a big stand on that.

So, what should unis be doing about it?

While many Australian universities have policies against alcohol abuse and run anti-drinking campaigns like the one run by UWA, the need remains for universities to address the underlying causes of alcoholism in student populations and inform students of the potentially damaging effects of binge-drinking in a way that will get through to young adults.

“The issue is to change the way people perceive having fun socially, and colleges are the problem here” says Sam Johnson*, a current undergraduate student at ANU.

At a 2012 forum hosted by Curtin University, Tanya McCusker, philanthropic benefactor of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, said that the freedom of university fosters a binge-drinking culture among students that universities are responsible for seriously addressing.

“There are huge ramifications on the whole community and universities can take a big stand on that”, says McCusker.

During the forum, McCusker noted that universities have combatted issues like smoking by enforcing smoke-free zones and whole campuses and a similar approach needs to be taken to contend with the university binge-drinking culture.

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons

Penny Robinson

Penny is a Philosophy and Media and Communications student at the University of Melbourne. She enjoys traveling, snacking, and not going to the gym.

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