Falling into the drink: alcohol and university life

As the last few bars of ‘Uptown Girl’ faded into silence on my walking commute to a lecture last week, a Spotify advert blared through my headphones, asking me if I needed to cut down on alcohol. The change in topics felt like whiplash, and their publicity strategy worked wonders, as it certainly gave me pause for thought. While I personally am an infrequent drinker, enjoying a couple of drinks on a sporadic night out, it would be remiss to ignore the large drinking culture that has become synonymous with university life over the past few decades.

Before I even stepped foot in Durham, well-meaning adults would interject a quip or two about remembering to do some work as well as drinking amidst their other, more useful advice. Indeed, this culture is propagated before prospective university students have a chance to experience it first-hand. Resultantly, I went into my Freshers’ Week thinking that every event would involve some kind of drinking game, and your participation therein would determine whether you could be part of the ‘in’ crowd or not. Mercifully, this was not the case – we owe a lot to the colleges’ welfare and frep teams for changing the culture and discourse surrounding Freshers’ Week, but sadly this is not always replicated elsewhere.

It seems I wasn’t alone in my apprehensions about the drinking culture at university, with the 2022-23 Students, Alcohol and Drugs Survey finding that 44% of respondents, prior to starting university, believed that students got drunk most of the time. Arguably because of this mindset, just under half of respondents said they felt an expectation from their friends to drink. While Durham University has a no-tolerance policy towards ‘initiation ceremonies’, this hasn’t eliminated the peer pressure associated with alcohol on socials, and the widespread dissatisfaction towards the alcohol ban at Floodlit Cup Matches is indicative of a deeply embedded drinking culture.

Of course, there are two sides to every story: the Students, Alcohol and Drugs Survey found that 67% of respondents felt more relaxed and sociable upon alcohol consumption, and 83% of respondents recognised how drinking too much too quickly can cut short a great night. Thanks to campaigns run by Drinkaware and Alcohol Change UK, attitudes towards alcohol are changing for the better. Writing in Palatinate last year, Sanjay Suri proved how teetotalism, or indeed reduced alcohol consumption, is possible at Durham, albeit with progress still to be made towards greater inclusivity.

That said, January 2024 was deemed ‘the driest January in living memory’, with drastically reduced drinks sales in pubs and bars. Particularly given the cost-of-living crisis, which has prompted 62% of students to go out less and 37% to drink less alcohol than before, the time is ripe for re-evaluating the role alcohol plays in our lives. Indeed, this financial aspect was one of the incentives to reduce alcohol consumption mentioned by the Spotify advert, alongside the associated health benefits. However, I think there’s another incentive at play here: cutting back on alcohol can ultimately improve our relationships with each other.

Throughout my time at university, I’ve realised that it’s who you drink with that makes the most difference. For me, being surrounded by people who respect your drinking decisions and look out for each other makes for a great experience more so than an excess of alcohol. Being respectful in the haze of Durham’s clubs and bars strengthens your relationships in the sober daylight hours too, thereby fostering a positive behavioural shift which is hard to enact through financial and health choices alone.

It’s time we raised a glass to mindful consumption. Respectful drinking practices? I’ll cheers to that.


To check how healthy your drinking practices are, you can access a short Drinkaware quiz here and find more resources and guidance on the Drinkaware and Alcohol Change websites.

Featured image: Isabella Mendes via Pexels.

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