In December 2016 we were notified of the terrible news that Ed Farmer, a first year Newcastle student had sadly died during what we now know to be a society initiation event. Despite initiations being prohibited by the university, Ed joined a society social in which he consumed excessive amounts of alcohol over a short period of time, this in combination with a lack of knowledge by his peers about the dangers of drinking excessive amounts of alcohol ultimately led to the tragic outcome.

On 23rd September 2019, Universities UK launched Initiations at UK Universities, a briefing looking at the features of problem initiations and recommendations for the future as well as highlighting areas of good practice. This was following a national roundtable held on 26th June 2019 to which NUS were a participant.

At these discussions NUS promoted the student interest and also shared good practice from our Alcohol Impact Programme. Alcohol Impact is whole-institution programme established by NUS in 2014 to challenge cultures on campuses which normalise excessive drinking and can sometimes become exclusive to students that don’t wish to take part. It’s about practical things like providing safer transport links, creating alcohol-free social spaces, reducing anti-social behaviour and developing community cohesion with local residents. More generally, NUS has been working with its member students’ unions to reduce the harm from initiations for well over a decade.

We agree with the report that although universities cannot control students’ behaviours, there are actions a university/students’ union can take to support students to make safer decisions and to set expectations for standards of conduct within the student community.

Alcohol Impact has a mandatory criteria on initiations: ‘IN039: The partnership has taken action to moderate or prevent alcohol-related initiation ceremonies’. All partnerships also must carry out an annual innovative intervention, and these can, and sometimes do, relate to preventing initiation ceremonies.

We have seen a number of positive steps taken by partnerships such as:

  • Canterbury Christ Church Students’ Union require all welcome events to be submitted by a Welcome Event Submission form 10 days in advance and a union officer will visit each society/sports group before this takes place. They have also brought in an anonymous reporting mechanism for those that do not comply.
  • Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU): LUSU runs ‘Duty of Care’ training with the executives of clubs and societies. As part of this training it covers the need for executives to promote and run safe and responsible events and activities for students in their groups. This is a mandatory training requirement and covers in part the area of alcohol and the need to ensure appropriate safe guards are in place.
  • Manchester Metropolitan University Students’ Union have been involved in the Take A Stand campaign originally run by British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) in response to widespread concerns about the impact of initiations. “Take A stand isn’t about ‘telling you off’, ‘being the fun police’ or banning traditions — it’s about education and empathy. It’s about opening your mind to thinking how others may feel in certain situations. What works for one of group of athletes may not work for another. At the end of the day we’re all athletes.” Owen Jones, Activities Officer (The Union MMU, Manchester Campus)

This is just a small example of the many positive activities to moderate initiation ceremonies, however, there is more that needs doing to prevent another tragedy. As a result we continue to encourage student unions and universities to focus on reversing the social norm of irresponsible drinking and encourage partnerships to commit to this by engaging with the Alcohol Impact accreditation.

Further information about the Alcohol Impact programme can be found here and sign-ups can be completed through our Students Organising Sustainability (SOS) website.

Written by Tracy Lumb, senior project manager – Alcohol Impact.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.