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Are students turning their backs on bars?

Every university has that place: the one where a different event is on every night, the promise of a good time and a cheap drink luring students out of bed. For Warwick, it’s The Dirty Duck. Pub quizzes and karaoke bring the pub to life throughout term time and many a fresher has made friends within its walls. The Duck, of course, revolves around student drinking, as it is first and foremost a pub. It’s hard to imagine The Dirty Duck disappearing overnight, but this is almost exactly what happened at the University of Portsmouth.

The University of Portsmouth’s “official student pub” – the Waterhole Bar – was closed by the University Executive Board after years of declining revenue. The pub was eventually declared to be “financially unsustainable” and closed this summer. Despite the Waterhole Bar having 1001 followers on Twitter – nearly four times the 267 that The Dirty Duck has – students were evidently not attending the venue and this led to the closure of the bar.

Portsmouth’s Waterhole Bar was closed after being declared “financially unsustainable” by the University’s Executive Board

A third-year student at the University of Portsmouth expressed upset at the news that the Waterhole Bar had closed, telling The Boar that “karaoke [at the bar] was a key part of my uni experience”. She was not as concerned with drinking at the bar, however, as so much the social aspect that had been lost. Another student commented that they stopped drinking at the Waterhole Bar because it was “so expensive”. The maths student explained that they still consume alcohol, but do so almost exclusively at home to save money. “I used to go to evenings hosted by Poker Society at the bar, but I stopped after a while. I enjoyed meeting up with everyone but it just wasn’t worth the money”.

The Dundee-based Abertay University also closed its union bar over the summer, having suffered falling sales over the past few years. Alcohol sales plummeted for Bar One, the union’s pub, resulting in its closure after last term. The bar has been replaced with a café.

It has been reported that drinking culture is declining among students, with more young people deciding to go ‘teetotal’. Students are reportedly drinking less than previous generations, opting to stay in rather than go on a stereotypical student’s night out. The National Union of Students (NUS) ran a national survey to accompany the launch of their Alcohol Impact initiative, a campaign focusing on responsible drinking. Nearly half of respondents said that they never felt expected to drink on a night out with friends. This statistic is far away from the peer pressured, alcohol-driven lifestyle that is portrayed in the media. Moreover, 21% said they don’t drink at all (never have or have stopped).

21% of students said that they didn’t drink at all, in a survey conducted by the NUS

Despite the falling rates of alcohol consumption, the preconceptions about university life linger. 79% of those surveyed by the NUS agreed that drinking is part of university culture and 47% of students believed that students drank “most of the time” before beginning higher education themselves. Why, then, are students still viewed as binge drinkers and party animals? This is perhaps due to representation in the media, with many films and television shows depicting university life as a constant party. I still remember the haunting episode of The Inbetweeners in which they visit none other than Warwick University, although it is unlike any night out I’ve experienced. The booze fuelled evening culminated in vomit, urine and a deceased potted plant (a hilarious but questionable episode).

Whilst I knew that The Inbetweeners exaggerated life in order to be humorous, I’d also heard about the student lifestyle and the expectations that went along with it. Whilst many of us have been ill due to alcohol, the events in this episode were – of course – hyperbolised. Peer pressure and parties at university has even seeped into children’s media, with Monsters University depicting coy initiation tasks depicted as well as cliquey groups throwing parties. Although we enjoy a drink at Warwick – circling springing to mind – it’s hard to believe I once feared I wouldn’t be able to ‘keep up’ and imagined torturous initiation ceremonies that I wouldn’t be able to complete. Fearing a Pitch Perfect level of vomit horror, I began university expecting the worst.

I still remember the haunting episode of The Inbetweeners, in which they visit none other than Warwick University…although it is unlike any night out I’ve experienced

Alcohol is clearly still a large part of socialising at university, but it seems that the student population is not as obsessed with alcohol as is believed. I’ve seen people attend circling without drinking and there is no expectation that to be a student you must get drunk every night. Student behaviours are changing slowly, the closure of Waterhole Bar and Bar One are evidence of this: but how do students perceive themselves and their attitude to alcohol?

The Boar conducted a questionnaire, shared with students at the University of Warwick, and found that 87.7% of those who responded do drink, but that 64.6% felt they had a ‘healthy’ relationship with alcohol. Those that have chosen to drink less or not at all were questioned on why this was. Most consistently, the reason for this decision was health: more students are deciding to change their habits based on the implications it has for physical as well as mental wellbeing.

A survey of students at Warwick found that 87.7% of respondents did drink, with 64.6% feeling that they have a ‘healthy relationship’ with alcohol

Despite the Student’s Union running a ‘sober social’ class during welfare officer training, only 52.3% of respondents had attended a sober social. The push for sober socials among societies has lead to the majority of students having attended one, if only by a small margin. 47.7% of students had never attended a sober social before and, when asked why, some stated that they “didn’t know they existed” and there were “none arranged”. This suggests that student culture has not changed far enough for societies to need to change completely, with some hosting no sober socials at all. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that individual students who adopt a teetotal lifestyle are on the rise.
Drinking is clearly still an important part of student life, but it is not the be all and end all. The number of students going teetotal is increasing year on year, so much so that this is beginning to have implications for establishments like the Waterhole Bar in Portsmouth. Whilst The Dirty Duck remains safe for now, the health risks and costs of drinking are certainly changing the relationship students have with alcohol. The space which used to be the Waterhole Bar will be converted into a social space for students, fitted with comfortable seating, microwaves and access to hot water. These social hubs are perhaps the future of student lifestyle and reflects the ever-growing trend of students becoming more aware of themselves and their health.

However, though student drinking may be in decline, one hopes that socialising itself is not. In the social media age, opportunities are for genuine human interaction are, at times, hard to find, despite being incredibly valuable to mental wellbeing and development. Here at Warwick, the fact that only just over half of polled students have attended a sober social should be a cause for concern – they offer an opportunity for the intermingling interaction common in bars and pubs. As good for our physical health forgoing alcohol may be, meeting new people, discussing new ideas and having a good time – with or without alcohol – can only be a positive thing for our mental health, a thing to be encouraged.

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