Let’s get one thing straight; Australia has a drinking problem, one that does not terminate on campus. Uni bars, orientation week parties, and music events are just a few examples of alcohol being integral to the student experience. It is considerably rare to find a university student in Australia who never drinks alcohol, and most will do so once or twice per month at the very least. But how does this drinking culture impact a student’s studies, social interactions, and well-being?
Most students will disagree with the notion that alcohol has negatively impacted their studies, however when asked about the drinking culture on campus one student admits to skipping a tutorial “once in a blue moon…” to have drinks at the uni bar with friends. It is not uncommon for students to congregate at the campus bar for drinks and a chat before class. Though these habits might not be considered problematic for most, the presence of the bar on campus can be dangerous to some students with less self-control; the same student admitting to missing classes also claims to have seen friends “fail subjects just because they’ve spent too much time at the uni bar”. So, it can be said that the impact of alcohol on campus on academic experiences is either negative or neutral in most cases, depending on how often a student will casually drink during the day. But again, this isn’t necessarily a direct outcome of having the bar on campus. Instead, it is the learned behaviours of the individual that create these habits. But why are some students choosing to drink so much, and so often?
The most consistently given reason for students choosing to drink alcohol with university friends and at university events is for the enhancement of social situations or dealing with anxieties about social interaction. The same students who acknowledge this positive aspect of the campus drinking culture also show concerns with the potential for excessive drinking, which may lead to embarrassing situations or unwanted hangovers. The balance of alcohol’s positive or negative impact on well-being and social interaction is dependent on either responsible or excessive drinking behaviours. Students seem aware of the obvious risks involved with heavy drinking, yet some choose to do so to such an extent that it negatively impacts the overall student experience. Even the perceived positive impacts of alcohol on social interaction can develop into unhealthy dependency when not drinking responsibly. The reason for these behaviours is different for everyone, though there is a common thread found in each account; peer pressure.
Many students agree that the binge-drinking culture in Australian universities is perpetuated by peer pressure and a need to “fit in” with other students. These negative situations are usually facilitated off-campus, especially in student parties and events like o-week. “When you come to uni, binge-drinking culture is so normalised,” says one student “it’s encouraged through events like o-week where the students are drinking every day of the week.” So, while the uni is not directly responsible for these bad drinking behaviours, the way they organise certain events can lead students to feel like they must be drinking to participate in the student experience. Another student who does not drink alcohol at all talks about their own experience with peer pressure at student parties; “I’m sipping on my juice, and people come up to me and ask, ‘why aren’t you drinking? just have a drink!’. I think even if you went out thinking you weren’t going to drink, you’d feel so much pressure.”
Although alcohol can enhance social experiences when consumed in moderation, a combination of peer pressure and the normalisation of drinking alcohol as a university student creates a potentially dangerous binge-drinking culture that can negatively impact students. It can create bad drinking habits that affect uni work and social situations, leading to stress and negative outcomes for personal well-being. It is important for universities to consider reducing the integration of alcohol with the student experience by creating spaces and events without the presence of alcohol, to compliment those that do. Because many students drink to reduce stress and enhance social situations, ensuring a balanced and responsible relationship with alcohol minimises the negative impacts on student well-being while maintaining these positives. O-week should be re-evaluated as an orientation for uni students, as it sets a precedent for new students of frequent, excessive drinking and clubbing. Universities should aim to facilitate more alcohol-free events during the orientation week as alternatives to the usual activities, which will allow more students to find friends and ‘fit in’ outside of exclusively just drinking and bars. Reducing the potential of irresponsible drinking habits for university students could be the essential first step to alleviating Australia’s deeply rooted binge-drinking culture and improving the country’s relationship with alcohol.