Student dies in initiation – is uni drinking culture going too far?

Societies are a big part of university life for a lot of people, a way to meet like-minded students, expand your skills and, of course, have some fun after a long study session. Some are known for their bizarre initiation ceremonies which almost always involve excessive amounts of alcohol and the humiliation of new recruits. But where do we draw the line? Is uni drinking culture going too far?

Ed Farmer was just 20 years old when he died as a direct result of one of these initiation ceremonies. Having joined the Agriculture Society at Newcastle University, he was encouraged to attend the event and bring with him a 70cl bottle of hard spirit and cash which would be handed over to the more senior members of the society. Challenges for the freshers involved drinking 100 triple vodka shots between 40 of them, apple bobbing in a bucket of urine and drinking vodka through a pig’s head. As the night went on, Ed was propped up by other students and carried towards the house where he appeared to fall asleep immediately. Unfortunately, his snoring, which other students saw as a sign of sleep, was, in fact, the first warning of his airways being blocked. When it was eventually realised that he was no longer breathing, he was rushed to hospital but had already died due to cardiac arrest on arrival.

I can’t help but question how much you would want to be a member of a society to make you go through with such controversial tasks? And why aren’t universities doing anything to stop excessive uni drinking culture?

Well, Newcastle had banned such events; however, the control that they have over what these societies choose to do is variable, especially as students were warned not to bring along anything identifying them as a student. Furthermore, as a tradition that had been occurring for more than 30 years within the Agricultural Society, a mere warning from the university would do little to quell the desire to maintain these events.

University comes with its own set of expectations. We seem to acknowledge the pressure surrounding studying, drugs, socialising, budgeting – but what about the drinking culture that exists? A culture which seems to come hand in hand with any form of socialisation, whether that be within a society or not. Alcohol is legal; therefore it seems that people forget that it can seriously damage your health, both in the short and long-term. Resisting peer pressure is a skill we’re all taught when we’re younger, but the reality is difficult, and when your life is turned upside down at university the yearning to fit in can take over.

It’s debatable as to whether the initiation was portrayed to freshers as necessary for full membership, but either way, I believe it’s likely that this was implied. That by not attending you would almost be an outcast, a member just by name, not by nature. And when you’re searching for a new family, a group of friends, saying no just isn’t that easy. The drinking was described as, “banter … encouraged … egged on” but never as forced. However, text messages from the next morning have been revealed: “deny, deny, deny” they read. Whatever the initial motivation for the night’s event had been, the panic in the morning seems to show a realisation that things had gone too far. But instead of taking responsibility, any sort of involvement was dismissed.

I acknowledge that it’s difficult for societies, especially with initiation ceremonies which have been carried out every year without such horrible consequences. But I think it’s about time we question the necessity of initiation ceremonies. I’m not suggesting the complete banning of alcohol, or even the ceremonies themselves, but I think that it’s vital their nature evolves and that there is a clear reference to the fact that it is a choice – not a requirement.

For things to truly change, though, we need to look at the drinking culture throughout university in general and challenge the root of the problem, rather than just the outcomes.

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