Is “our” Union really doing enough to protect us?

Natasha Franks argues for bringing water back behind the bar.


In the Union, despite the semi-darkness and pervasive sheen of sweat, there is an underlying obligation towards the safety of students. While the Vic, the Rule, and Ma Bells are frequently billed as “student haunts,” locals and tourists may mix freely among the fully matriculated crowd. This forced integration is not innately dangerous, but it does remove undergrads from the comparative bubble of university life. Female students in particular describe unwelcome interactions on the dancefloor with visiting golfers or roving stag dos.

In a consequent effort to pare the slime from the sublime, girls and boys alike resort to the town’s premier university-managed bar. Frequently disparaged and often abused, the Union is nonetheless a refuge, a prodigy of tuition fees and feedback, where students drink and dance with impunity –– as do, apparently, potential date rapists.

The statement is, admittedly, an extreme one, yet, I struggle to otherwise describe the Union’s reckless enablement of drink-spiking. I refer not to tequila shots or blue Pablos, but to water, the lifeblood shared by drinkers and non-drinkers on a night out. Aside from the obvious fact that we require water to survive, the added elements of dancing and alcohol necessitate frequent hydration.

In technical terms, alcohol decreases the body’s production of antidiuretic hormone. This leads to the body losing excessive amounts of fluid through urination, sparking common hangover symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and exhaustion.

Most drinkers disregard the recommended “one glass of water for every alcoholic beverage” adage, and nearly everyone can admit to feeling parched by the night’s end. As a former Ma Bells bartender, I remember water being the drink of choice when the clock approached 2 am on a Tuesday. Jiggers were discarded in favour of free-pouring from the sink, replenishing the depleted electrolyte stores of scores of revellers.

At the Union, students who request water are directed to self-service pitchers. Regularly replenished throughout the night, these pitchers sit exposed and unguarded, open to manipulation by any of the many intoxicated passersby. Make no mistake: the mere virtue of being a student bar does not minimise the Union’s risk factor.

Although the allure of the Main Bar lies partially in the notion that we are safe when surrounded by peers, consider that 90 per cent of rape victims know their perpetrator. The Union should not be exempt from completing basic safety exercises on the basis of being student-dominated.

It would seem that the University agrees. Glancing at the website, a statement catches my eye: “the University has a duty of care towards students, members of staff, and visitors to take all reasonable steps to identify and minimise risk.”

The written promise exists, and we deserve its fulfilment. Surely encouraging students to drink from vulnerable pitchers increases risk. How difficult could it possibly be to serve water from behind the bar?

As a result of the Union’s laziness, students are faced with a nightly ultimatum: avoid the water and potentially suffer from debilitating dehydration, or drink the potentially-spiked water. It is a lose-lose situation. Anecdotally, I can confirm witnessing alcoholic drinks being spilled into the pitchers, rendering the only water source in the room undrinkable. Bouncers may be on hand to separate any physical entanglements, but who protects us from the Union’s own careless policies?

A cursory Google search reveals a litany of preventative measures that we can undertake to avoid being spiked. Every list includes several similar suggestions: don’t accept a drink from a stranger. Don’t leave your drink alone. Avoid sharing drinks. The Union’s water policy rejects each recommendation to the point where it can be considered nothing short of negligence. Students can easily monitor their own drinks, but they are helpless when faced with the pitchers. To ensure the safety of the liquid inside, the pitchers would require constant surveillance, an unfeasible caveat that begs the question why not just serve water straight from the tap? Or, at the very least, provide the water in a vessel more secure than free-standing, open-topped pitchers.

Truthfully, I am at a loss for the reasoning behind this apathetic brand of water distribution. Parents and teachers have warned us since early adolescence against the dangers of accepting a drink from a stranger. Their warnings grew more urgent as we approached university age.

In Britain, one-third of female students are sexually assaulted or harassed while at uni. According to the same Telegraph study that uncovered this statistic, one in eight male students has been the target of unwanted harassment. These numbers are only bolstered by date rape drugs.

The NHS advises to “never leave your drink unattended” and to “[avoid] punch bowls or jugs of cocktails.” Even in the face of such advice, the University shockingly condones supplying students with jugs of unattended water.

This action is an egregious dismissal of our collective wellbeing, particularly at a place that bills itself as “Our Union.” We expect no other club in St Andrews to prioritise students, so what appeal does the Union have if it deliberately places us in harm’s way? Certainly, one could survive a party without sampling the punch. Water, on the other hand, is vital for hydration and hangover prevention.

For these reasons, Scottish law mandates that an alcohol-serving establishment must provide free water. Our Union technically follows this law, but in doing so it endangers the lives of its guests.

The NHS website adds that date rape drugs “are particularly dangerous when mixed with alcohol.” The combination can, in fact, be deadly.

The Union is effectively forcing students to choose between hydration and personal safety. No longer must date rapists wait for an abandoned vodka coke to fall into their path; they need only tamper with a Union-sanctioned pitcher. The water is almost farcically exposed, a parody of bar safety blatantly scorning the notion of student welfare.

Understandably, we are not permitted to bring our own liquids into the bar. Accordingly, the Union should recognise its moral responsibility in providing us with clean, safe drinking water.

I do not doubt that the Union has our best interests at heart. The website states that it offers “a safe environment for students to enjoy themselves in,” and I am grateful for the enforced Zero Tolerance Policy towards harassment and discrimination. Ultimately, the pitchers appear to have been placed under the mistaken assumption that students value convenience over safety. Self-service spares us from the bar queue, and it marginally reduces the bartenders’ workload.

However, I and many other students would happily queue in exchange for a guarantee of untampered drinks. The Union ought to take better care of its students and bring water back behind the bar.


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