The tipping point: an exploration of St Andrew’s drinking culture

Photo: Amanda Levinson

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, famously joked that you “leave St Andrews in one of two states: either married or an alcoholic.”  Although you can expect any university experience to involve a fair amount of drinking, this comment implies that the students at our University have an unusually unhealthy relationship with alcohol. But does this perception hold any truth?

Drunken academic family dinners, nights out and sports initiations: the presence and use of alcohol can play a large part in student life. This is especially pertinent for freshers because going out together is a great form of social bonding. Of course, you can opt out of drinking, but in doing so you also opt out of what is seen as a typical university rite of passage.

Photo: Amanda Levinson
Photo: Amanda Levinson

Indeed, Ellen Ridsdale, a fourth year who took part in McMillan Cancer Support’s Go Sober for October charity initiative, found that people were surprised to hear she was not drinking. Throughout her month of sobriety, Ms Ridsdale ‘’felt better day to day, didn’t worry about hangovers and found [herself] sleeping better.’’

This sounds brilliant, and it raises the question of why we don’t all give up drinking. What is our goal in pursuing inebriation against our own better judgement? A desire to feel comfortable socially is often cited as a motivation for drinking. Alcohol is commonly perceived as a way of smoothing away awkwardness.

Two students supported this view. Laura Trad said, “I drink because I can’t dance,” and Chiara Villa agreed that “at parties [alcohol] helps to be less shy and more chatty.” This is perhaps symptomatic of problems people have with self-confidence, self-expression and inhibition, but the use of alcohol as a social lubricant is normal.

Another reason people drink freely at university is because they know it is not socially acceptable anywhere else. There is no denying that daytime inebriation on Raisin Sunday is a novelty. I won’t call it daytime drinking, because that phrase implies that you’ve had a boozy brunch or you’re French; stumbling through the streets of St Andrews at 10 am is something else. To a lesser extent, going out on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night can also feel like a defiance of social normality.

There are, of course, the quick escape fixes that alcohol can provide. After engaging our brains for hours, we use alcohol as a release from working our minds analytically. This is where “work hard, play hard” comes in. Drinking and going out are easy ways of restoring some balance to an overworked mind. There are many other ways of finding equilibrium, but drinking is easy because it’s already written into our social calendars. Walking around at night with friends, the sensation of ethanol in our bloodstreams and brains, dancing for hours and finally eating chips before crawling into bed is an experience that is wholesome in its own way because it’s a part of university life.

Western culture also plays a big part in our drinking habits. The UK and USA have particularly bad reputations for poor relations with alcohol; the drunken, sticky-skinned, sunburned Brit abroad stereotype is one that continental Europeans commonly believe, and sports society and frat house initiations are something we shake our heads at in American culture. Binge drinking and drinking to get drunk is something is almost alien to non-Brits and non-Americans.

Photo: The Saint
Photo: The Saint

“I’ve never been used to this sort of drinking culture that a lot of people seem to have here, where people go out to get drunk and take shots,” Julia Bucaille, a student from Monaco, said.

Drinking to relieve stress seems a little problematic. Our brand of drinking is still recreational, but there’s a darker, needier undertone to the way we consume alcohol. “The UK is pretty hardcore compared to other countries,” Ms Villa, who is from Italy, noted.

That being said, I would argue that St Andrews does not have as strong a drinking culture as many other British universities and there is no need for a student’s social scene to revolve around going out unless they particularly want it to. Indeed, many students choose not to drink, and this year alone, 162 people applied
to live in the University’s alcohol-free student accommodation.

Students aren’t always given enough credit for their own self-policing attempts. The narrative of all students drinking with thoughtless, reckless abandon is far too simplistic. We weigh things up and navigate the limbo between social pressure and self-assertion. We don’t walk about on beds of roses where we fail to recognise our responsibilities to others or ourselves, or the impact that drinking has on our daily lives and studies.

There are certainly those we would regard as having a problematic relationship with alcohol, but excess drinking is by no means endemic. We are navigating the university drinking culture that met us when we arrived with reasonable enough sagaciousness, involvement and healthily vacillating opinions. When people joke about losing their matric cards and their dignity, there’s not necessarily anything dire about it. These are self-respecting people who have enjoyed temporary loss of self-control, and they apply a nice dose of irony to their assessment of the night.

One element of university drinking culture that makes some people uncomfortable is the concept of sports society initiations. Although not all clubs partake in this tradition, the social pressure inadvertently created by such events can encourage students to exceed their limits.

Josephine Lefrancq Frojd said: “It’s often stressed that you have a choice, but being in the actual social situation makes it seem like you’re just supposed to go along with it. It’s just part of the culture in a way.”

Pre-initiation, athletes are often uneasy, even dreading the night. Afterwards, they’ll report that it was good fun because they got along with it and had already anticipated a bad hangover. However, these events are a one-off and act as part of British student culture rather than an exclusive St Andrews tradition.

As university students, we’re young and resilient, but by consuming a immense amounts of alcohol, we damage our bodies. For the most part, this happens imperceptibly. It also follows a student trend for a disregard for health. A standard night out includes cheesy chips, pizza or chicken nuggets, and a standard day following a big night out might not be much healthier for some.

Photo: TripAdvisor

The University does its part in ensuring that students who are drinking are knowledgeable. Alcohol awareness courses run by the police ‘’provide information on alcohol intake, calculating units consumed and the effect on health and wellbeing,’’ a University spokesperson said. The spokesperson also stressed that town and gown discord is minimal and that it is ‘’thoughtlessness’’ rather than anti-socialism that characterises any discord.

Things might have been different when Prince William was at St Andrews, but his depiction of our school as a boozy place is not representative of the bigger picture. Whilst most of us enjoy the odd Pablo here and there, it seems that many students approach alcohol with a healthy dose of self-possession and common sense.


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