The Raisin Question: does St Andrews have a drinking problem?

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When our own library deems it necessary to remind students that drinking there is a bad idea, it’s time to rethink our relationship with alcohol.

No one wants to be the boring, slightly sanctimonious sober one. We’re all grown ups, and if I want to get blind drunk on a Wednesday night then it should be my right to, without anyone asking me to reconsider my attitude to life or think of the long term consequences of my actions on my health and grades. If I want a messy bomb – hell, if I want ten messy bombs – then I and every other student at this University should be able to.

For those of us unlucky enough to be facing a future of responsibilities and obligations, this is the only chance we will ever have to get wasted every night of the week with relatively few repercussions, other than the odd nausea-ridden tutorial or migraine-blighted morning shift at work.

Despite this, there are a number of red flags that hint that St Andrews’ relationship with the sauce isn’t just unhealthy (can any relationship with such a substance be so?), but is worryingly so.

When our own university library deems it necessary to launch a poster campaign reminding students that drinking there is forbidden for example, it’s probably time to rethink our relationship with alcohol and our collective reliance on it.

Binging on alcohol brings with it a plethora of harmful side-effects – we all know that. From the night-ruining potential of sprained ankles to the altogether more serious consequences of liver damage and mental health issues, any heavy drinking session involves some degree of cost/benefit analysis in which long-term considerations inevitably fall by the wayside.

But as a student body we ought to think about how our drinking culture is perceived and how it may affect the many abstaining students who study here.

One of the reasons I was immediately drawn to St Andrews was its continuation of century old traditions. Love them or hate them, they fundamentally reinforce a sense of academic community and are an excellent way of giving people a sense of belonging. All these benefits are lost when these activities become exclusionary, and events surrounding both Raisin Weekend and May Dip are too often accompanied by a can, bottle or keg of alcohol.

Raisin Weekend has become so renowned for alcohol-induced bad behaviour that it manages to sour town and gown relations every year. Worse, it leads to many sober freshers feeling boring or isolated because they can’t partake in the ritual drinking games that are a focal point of many academic parents’ celebrations.

There is undeniably a huge amount of peer pressure brought to bear on these freshers by parents and siblings alike. This level of coercion is simply unacceptable, and why we think it’s okay to encourage a teetotaler to ‘just have a sip’ of Sambuca when we would never dare try to stuff a bacon sarnie down a vegetarian’s throat is entirely inexplicable.

Students’ refusal to respect these life choices can make abstainers feel excluded whilst leaving them unable to talk about their feelings for fear of being labeled a spoilsport.

Beyond Raisin many aspects of university life take place in pubs or at alcohol fuelled events. After a quick Google search it is unclear whether St Andrews actually does have the most pubs per square mile in Britain, but with over 30 establishments and a population of only 17,000 we’re certainly in the running.

It’s an easy option to hold an AGM or society meeting in Aikman’s, but it does implicitly suggest that alcohol is an integral part of belonging to that society. All societies should seek to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible, and neglecting a considerable part of the student body doesn’t achieve that.

It’s not unnecessarily whiney to ask that as a whole we readjust our view of alcohol and of those who choose not to drink. The vast majority of students enjoy healthy drinking routines but our incredibly defensive and misunderstanding attitude towards those who are probably making more sensible life choices has to stop.

When it comes to this balance, I feel that we strike the perfect equilibrium – know how to have fun but we don’t dare risk it for our studies. 

You can see the evidence every day.  The baying, Barbour-clad mob that descends like clockwork upon Tesco’s alcohol aisle at 9:55 pm, to the puddles of vomit they leave behind on Market Street the morning after. You could argue that St Andrews and its students have a drinking problem; I however, think quite the opposite – we merely enjoy having a good time.

Drinking, as much as it causes some problems, goes hand in hand with general student culture, a culture that spans the entire country and has done for decades if not centuries. You could argue then that the country’s students have a drinking problem and that we, a relatively insignificant student town, are a part of that. And yet, there is so much that points to the contrary – rather that we use drinking as a way to bond.

Alcohol, arguably by social definition, is for many a key beverage to the enjoyment of the company of others. In a place where the vast majority of us did not know anyone before we arrived, alcohol has played a larger role than many of us would like to admit in shaping our social lives – and by extension our university experience.

Fixed social events, whether they be socials, ‘initiations’, balls or house parties, promote drinking as a way to help people connect and mingle. Stretching from intense drinking games to the beloved Wine and Cheese evening. Even the name boasts drinking – in that context, mingling is very much a secondary objective.

Moreover, if we have a drinking problem, then surely all other British and global universities do too. Drinking has simply become a key part of student culture. As a small university town with few nightclubs and bars, we do not even have the potential to have a huge drinking problem. In fact, we’re very much the opposite. Rather than going clubbing four times a week, we save (the majority) of our antics for the multitude of formal events and traditions we have taken upon ourselves to develop. Rather than going crazy every night of the week, we save that for the next upcoming ball.

Our alcohol and drinking culture is especially talked about at the moment due to Raisin week end, the occasion we associate the most with getting truly and utterly smashed. Raisin is one of those traditions, as I say, that only comes once a year and, similarly to balls and such, it is only fitting to enjoy these events as much as we see fit, whether drinking is involved or not. For those who do include it, they see it merely as their way of having fun.

However, I also feel that, as a student body, we do have our priorities set out in terms of balancing work and play. This week for instance, my group of friends and I organised a pub crawl, only to cancel it due to our various work and study commitments. Whether they involve societal commitments, essay deadlines or just the need to catch up on sleep, I’ve seen this trend reach far beyond my group to the rest of the student community. When it comes to finding this balance, I feel that we strike the perfect equilibrium – we know how to have fun but without risking our studies for it.

Furthermore, for those worried about being left out of student activities for their abstinence, I feel that this is not as much of a taboo as it used to be. Previously, not  drinking  may have given off the impression that you’re ‘boring’, ‘no fun’, ‘unsocial’ whereas now it seems to be more of a health-conscious decision and a personal choice. With an increasingly health-conscious student community, alcohol is seen more of as a treat than a lifestyle choice. Going out and socialising is healthy, drinking to excess  whenever you do is not.

St Andrews does not have a drinking problem, it is merely a practice deeply ingrained in student culture all over the world. For now, St Andrews is an anomaly in how little we drink compared to the rest of the country. Rather than us drinking for crazy, wild nights that we will forget for that very reason, we use drinking to bind us together and create happy memories.

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