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3rd October 2014

Teetotallers have it harder at university.

With drunken Freshers’ week antics now over, Robert Firth takes a look at what university life is like for students who don’t drink.

In 2013, the Oak House Welcome Week was advertised with the slogan “One Chance, Unlimited Memories.” For the majority of students their memory of freshers’ week is that they don’t have many memories of it. Not surprising when the entire week revolves around attending late night venues with effective strangers whilst consuming so much alcohol that you start to confuse feeling sober with being only tipsy. Yet for some people who you probably can’t remember, freshers’ was a lot more memorable because these people don’t drink.

Not drinking is still something that many students seem to find strange. One female student I talked to said that “most people were a little surprised… although a couple of people have given me funny looks but not said anything.” More worryingly she commented that “there are a few times where I have felt a little bit pressured into drinking or excluded because I don’t drink.” Although compared to other peoples’ experiences this seems to have been pretty mild, in an article for The Epinal, Loughborough University’s student newspaper, a contributor talks about “the constant pressure and questioning around you, with the majority of young people finding [not drinking] a difficult concept to grasp.”

These responses to non-drinkers by students are echoed in research done by The University of Sussex which found that students considered teetotallers as “something strange, requiring explanation.” However, not all is bad for non-drinkers: in social situations they were found to be perceived as more socially competent by their peers than those who drank. Likewise the student I spoke to said she didn’t feel socially disadvantaged by not drinking: “I don’t feel like my socializing was affected as I only tend to go out with my friends who don’t care about me not drinking which stops any awkwardness or pressure.”

Whilst most non-drinkers seem to navigate the lager-scented course of university well enough, it is surprising that Students’ Unions don’t do more. They may point to the many societies available to join at universities across the country but in the words of another contributor to The Epinal, “many of the societies’ socials are just an excuse to get drunk.”

One university which has looked at ways of accommodating non-drinkers is London Metropolitan University which in 2012 considered banning the sale of alcohol in certain areas of the campus. However, it is difficult to justify banning the sale of alcohol around campus on the grounds of fairness when you can still already simply order a soft drink in a bar.

Whilst alcohol remains the foundation of much of our social lives, little is probably going to change for non-drinkers. Alcohol Aware Manchester is a group set up by second year biology students who aim to provide events to show students that alcohol is not needed for students to socialise. For the Salford student I spoke to, more needs to be done by individual universities, perhaps through working with student groups such as Alcohol Aware, to challenge and change attitudes about alcohol: “I think that the university could put less emphasis on the preconceived idea that all university students want to do is drink all the time and put more focus on the activities that don’t have to involve alcohol.”

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