InFocus: Sophia Merrow and Ailie Corbett, the team behind alcohol-free accommodation

Photo: Tony Alter
Photo: Tony Alter
DRA/FP plans to offer alcohol free housing for the 2015/16 academic year. Photo credit The Saint
DRA/FP plans to offer alcohol free housing for the 2015/16 academic year. Photo credit The Saint
Student life can often seem to be dominated by alcohol, particularly for students living in halls. But from next year, students will be able to choose to live in alcohol-free accommodation, avoiding the pressure to drink.
St Andrews will be the first university in Scotland to officially offer this type of accommodation.
It all started when Sophie Merrow and Ailie Corbett began their student services internships as part of the University’s summer internship scheme last year. Ms Corbett’s project looked at safe drinking among students, and Ms Merrow’s role was examining mental health policy for students.

The project for alcohol-free accommodation – which Ms Merrow described as “Ailie’s brain child”- was based upon successes in both the University College of Cork and the University of Bristol, they told The Saint. Cork was the first University to introduce it in the UK, winning an award for their accommodation. Bristol has seen similar success, with higher demand for alcohol free accommodation than they have spaces.
Since the beginning of the academic year, the well-being committee and healthy lifestyle group have been working towards establishing alcohol free accommodation in St Andrews, with Ms Merrow noting that there have been “lots of people involved in this.”

Though the pair had worried that the University would not be enthusiastic and would look for loopholes, they found there was actually a lot of support for their alcohol-free proposal. “Student services have been great,” said Ms Corbett. “They’ve supported us the whole way through, we couldn’t have done it without them.” Residential and Business Services also lent a helping hand. According to Ms Merrow, “they just got right on board, it was really encouraging.”
Safety and comfort were clearly important factors for them both in developing the project. “It’s your home and your safe space,” Ms Corbett commented. “And if you don’t feel comfortable around alcohol why should you have it in your safe space?”
“If people are feeling more comfortable in their houses then that benefits everyone.”

Alcohol-free accommodation will appeal to a variety of people, they feel. “I think there might be some interest from returning students,” said Ms Corbett. She also noted that it may appeal to some first years “who have decided that maybe they don’t want to start drinking, or maybe they’re from a country where they’re not used to drinking, or maybe they just don’t like it.” Sophie added that the housing may appeal to “people that want to just get away from the pressure to drink.”[pullquote]There are lots of different lifestyles, different living preferences[/pullquote]
The housing is not necessarily for people who don’t drink at all. “You can drink elsewhere, you just can’t have it in the flat,” explained Ms Merrow. “It’s a way of having a quieter lifestyle whilst still getting the most out of your university experience.”

Sophie explained that the University felt “we have an incredibly diverse student body and we have people from all over the world; different cultures, different faiths, and for whatever reason that a student might not want to drink alcohol, they want to support them in that decision.”

“There are lots of different lifestyles, different living preferences,” she added, saying the University wants to cater to that as best as possible.
Research into what students know about drinking showed surprising results, suggesting that there needs to be a change in the way students approach alcohol. “Students don’t know what a unit of alcohol is,” Ms Corbett explained, following an experiment at the Freshers’ Fayre asking people to guess how many units were in a variety of drinks.

Students will be able to select their preference for alcohol-free accommodation when applying for halls. Aftersubmitting their application, they will be emailed with further information regarding the contract. If this appeals, then they will receive the contract which will prohibit alcohol on the premises. At the moment there is no clear regulation for punishing students who do not abide by the terms, however this does not appear to be much of an issue. Other universities have not had issues with residents breaching their contracts, with Ms Merrow explaining that “if you elect to be in this sort of space then you’re not going to want to do that.”

Currently all of the alcohol-free residences are planned for DRA because of the ease of grouping students into self-contained flats. As such, they will be more flexible with the number of students they are able to accept for alcohol-free halls, with the prospect of eventually filling a whole block of DRA following this trial year. “It’s entirely interest-based,” said Sophie, explaining that the number of flats available will be affected by the number of students that show interest in the housing this year.[pullquote]With regards to the future development of the project, the pair are hopeful that it will continue to grow.[/pullquote]
“I don’t know personally if I would have picked it,” Ms Corbett revealed, making it clear that this project was not motivated by personal desires, but those of their fellow students. She explained that “it’s about having options,” about acknowledging that different people have different lifestyles and that the University should accommodate that wherever possible. “Options, basically, is the bottom line for students,” Ms Merrow added. “Making sure every student’s well-being is looked after in terms of their living situation,” she said.
A survey to garner student reactions to the prospect of alcohol-free halls has been returning positive results, they said. Students that would not necessarily consider the option for themselves have acknowledged that this could be important for others. “It is a very short survey but it’s great to get people’s opinions on it,” said Ms Corbett, encouraging those with any positive or negative feedback to get in touch.
“We’ve had a lot of responses so far and whether people think it’s a good idea. And actually the majority of people that have responded do think it’s a good idea, whether they want to go into it or not.”

With regards to future development of the project, the pair are hopeful that it will continue to grow. The expensive rent for DRA apartments will undoubtedly limit the number of people that can apply for the alcohol-free residence, so they hope to see alcohol-free housing become available in cheaper residences so that it is able to benefit people who cannot afford the pricier halls.
The survey is available on the Union’s website.


  1. I think the bigger news in this article is the fact that the UK has apparently annexed Cork. Or did we just reunite with Ireland again?


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