From The Ritz To The Rubble: An Account Of The Drinking Culture At One English University

While on University Exchange, I stayed at a Residential Hall that was one of the oldest buildings on campus – a stately group of long, dark brick buildings three stories high, framing open quadrangles complete with flagstones bordering squares of prohibited grass.

One night in October, I had gone to bed and was lying awake when I heard people yelling outside. This was normal; my room faced onto the echoey central Quad, but tonight, someone was running on the grass and screaming for the Porter. I climbed quickly out of bed and stuck my upper body through the open window. The windows of our Hall were the original, old-fashioned wooden and glass windows from when the Hall was built in the 1950s and the sashes could be pushed up fully. 

Suddenly, someone started screaming – the high-pitched screams of a young man in life-threatening pain. “Get a belt!” someone yelled, and I realised that somewhere out on the frigid Quad, someone was losing a lot of blood.   

 

At our Hall, pre-drinking didn’t happen in our Hall Bar. It happened in the corridors of your ‘block’ with the other 17 people with whom you shared a door code and three bathrooms.

During pre-drinks that night in October, in a block down the Quad from mine, someone had gotten drunk and, in a moment of geared up enthusiasm, had put their arm through one of the windows. The vintage charm of our windows had yielded to their lack of safety mechanisms and the upper sash had collapsed, severing the veins in his upper forearm.

The next morning at breakfast there was no announcement or ‘press release’ by an authority figure to let us know how our injured peer was doing. To my knowledge, no mention of the accident was made in our weekly newsletter, no email sent and most of all, no hint that the loose alcohol regulations of our Hall might be to blame.

I heard, through rumours, that the guy survived the incident but almost lost his arm. He would miss exam period and the rest of the semester. I know he lived, but I never saw him around our Hall again.

This is one of the incidents that comes to mind when people ask me about the drinking culture on campus at my exchange University.

 

My Hall in England housed 350 people, but due to tradition, no one stayed in ‘Halls’ past first year, which meant that the population consisted solely of 350 ‘freshers’ or first years.

The most important thing to know about English freshers is that most don’t have a personal income. Similar to America, there’s a tradition of going to University somewhere other than your hometown. What this means is that most students spend September to June at University and then return home for the summer, making it difficult to hold down a part-time job in either place.

The English government has accommodated for this. They offer ‘student loans’ which are usually repaid after graduation. This is an agreement whereby a student will receive a £3000 loan (roughly $5400AUD) on a bankcard at the beginning of each semester.

The second interesting point is that almost no one takes a Gap Year, which means that the median age at Halls is 18. The third, and perhaps most important point, is that in most cases, first year grades do not count towards your overall degree (Medicine being a notable exception). Instead, a student’s grades from second and third year make up your overall degree classification at graduation. However, this might be argued as being an equaliser to the fact that there is Honors built-in in most undergraduate degrees – a 10,000 word dissertation due at the end of third year.

In a survey of undergrads mentioned in a Guardian article on whether or not this system should change, two thirds agreed that first-year should never count towards your degree as “young people might need time to settle in and get used to living away from home” and that “those students taking new subjects should be given a chance to familiarise themselves with their degree.”1 Personally, I’d love to see someone put those arguments to the ANU College of Law.

 

In short, the Halls at my exchange University were essentially 350-person summer camps where everyone was 18, had a magic ATM card with (seemingly) unlimited spending money and less pressure to achieve high grades.

There was no natural hierarchy of older students, no cute traditions to learn or strong Hall pride to upkeep, there were just multiple chances to prove oneself a ‘top lad’. As my fellow ANU exchange student Danny Fox put it, “I don’t think I heard the term ‘straight-edge’ or ‘I don’t drink’ while I was there.” Being a ripe-old 22 years of age at Halls helped me realise that this ‘Fresher’s Wonderland’ was missing a few things – like limits and people who cared.

Every Hall had ‘Tutors’, who were a proxy of the Resident Advisors, Senior Residents and Community Advisors at ANU Colleges. My Hall was divided into ‘blocks’ and lettered A to V. Each block had 18 rooms and Tutors were assigned 3-5 blocks each, making it a 54:1 ratio in terms of pastoral care.

A couple of weeks into my exchange, my block were invited to a ‘Wine and Cheese Night’ held in the Hall’s library for a chance to mingle with our Tutors. My Tutor made no move to interact with me, or any of my block mates.

Instead, all the Tutors stood in a little circle and talked amongst themselves while we got plastered off the copious amounts of wine they supplied. The only time a Tutor (not my own) approached me that evening was when he offered to refill my wine glass as I swayed from side to side.

Tutors sat at their own, reserved, dining table at meal times. If my Tutor had known my name or that of anyone in my block, I would have eaten my hat.

To accompany this lack of pastoral care, our University had a drinking culture that would put Uni Games to shame. A rite of passage for freshers was attempting the ‘Campus 14’, a bar crawl to each of the 13 college bars (plus the Union bar) in which each person had to have a pint or a double at every stop. To complete this properly, you would have to drink around 28 standard units of alcohol in a five-hour period (the Hall bar opening times).

I had heard that the Campus 14 used to be a University organised event until someone drowned trying to cross the boating lake (an infamous ‘final challenge’ to the crawl). The Campus 14 Wikipedia page dismisses this as rumour and cites hospital complaints as the real reason for the ban of the event in 2001.2

The article goes on to state that Hall bar staff are instructed to eject any students suspected of attempting the Campus 14, although when a large group of friends and I attempted, it I saw no such restrictions. Almost everyone I met on exchange had attempted the Campus 14 at least once, to varying degrees of sickness and success.

 

There were five of us ANU exchange students who went to this University in September 2013 and I asked each one of them for their opinion on drinking at their colleges in preparation for this article. All but one returned observations similar to my own, detailing the lack of peer-support and the lack of guidance from not having older students at Halls. All that answered agreed that the drinking was far more excessive than at the ANU.

When asked for comment, fellow exchange student Sarah Smith drew my attention to the Sporting Team initiations. “The initiations that freshers go through, certainly the ones I heard about – netball, football and rugby – sounded absolutely out of hand. They happen at the houses of the older players completely unsupervised and there are often disgusting food challenges, punishments and humiliation involved for anyone who can’t drink fast enough, or can’t do the challenges. It’s certainly the closest thing I’ve heard to hazing, but they all seem to love it.”

Drugs were incredibly prevalent in Halls. MDMA was the favourite and I knew the names of three dealers in my Hall alone. Smith told me, “We actually had a campus-wide dealer living in our hall. There were rumours that in the cocaine he had been giving his friends, they had found traces of heroin…he was thrown out of halls, the Uni, and banned from [the county]…”

Each Hall had ‘Karni Reps’ who were the employees of ‘Karnival’ the student-run charity. Each semester, freshers fund-raised against each other to be selected as one of the next Karni Reps to their Hall. An aspiring Rep at my Hall calculated how many stairs were the equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest and then ran, walked and crawled the distance over an excruciating 24hrs – on top of posing for a naked photo in the city’s Christmas Markets. Another pair of prospective Reps raised money (and pulses) by publicly waxing their scrotums in our Common Room.

Karnival’s main source of collection were weekly ‘Rag Raids’ where, for a price, the Reps would load freshers onto a double-decker bus (no seatbelts) to collect money for charity in a nearby city.

The freshers would have the day to collect as much money as possible for that week’s charity. They would then get back on the bus where the Karni Reps would give them cups, which they would fill repeatedly with ‘Karni Cocktail’ which consisted of cheap vodka, white goon and cherry soft drink.

Drinking games would ensue for the entire trip home, with black garbage bags tied to the ends of the seats for when people needed to vomit or relieve themselves, as bathroom stops were infamously rare. I regularly saw the Reps hosing down the buses in our Hall’s parking lot after Raids.

The fresher who collected the most money would be given a magnum of cheap sparkling wine while the penalties for being the lowest collector ranged from having ‘CHEAP C**T’ written on your forehead with a Sharpie, to being made to eat dog food.

One friend told me that they played a game where everyone had to stand up and tell everyone their most embarrassing story. If the bus didn’t deem it embarrassing enough, they would write the keywords of the story on the person’s face in permanent marker.

At first, I was excited to go on a Rag Raid. However, after hearing the stories, my enthusiasm diminished. I did, however, pay £50 to attend Karnival’s ‘Venetian Splendour’ Ball. It was like LSS Law Ball on crack – aerial acrobats entertained us in front of a floor to ceiling set piece of a Venetian cathedral. Opera singers and costumed actors strolled around and there were at least two dance performances before we’d even sat down. A dodgem car rink completed the festivities.

At the end of the evening, it was announced that Karnival had raised over £1.7 million (over $3.5 million) for various charities in 2013 alone. The money is real; it’s just the ‘lad culture’ around its collection that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

As Smith commented, “Their behaviour is completely unchecked – anything is allowed, and there are no student leaders around to enforce any sort of standards. I think that, more than anything, is the reason for the wild behaviour and the wide array of incidents.”

 

These activities bear an interesting contrast to the recent approach the ANU administration has taken to ANU organised events involving alcohol. While I don’t recommend to the ANU the level of alcoholic abandon I witnessed on exchange, I think there is a middle ground to be reached, somewhere between the discouraging idea of a Dry O-Week and the unappealing prospect of 28 units of alcohol.

I could write 20 essays on why I loved my Hall, why I could have stayed there longer or why I think everyone should experience exchange, but I felt the need to write this essay for our Party Edition to reflect on the ridiculousness of Hall life in England, perhaps as a type of catharsis.

This article is not a call to arms against binge drinking and it is not my intention to deter anyone from University exchange. It is, however, a small amount of critical insight into a culture that we so often view as being similar to our own, and yet, when we scratch the surface, we can see how something so small as greater leniency in respect to alcohol and a more relaxed view of residential pastoral care can create a drastically different university environment.

As soft as it sounds, I genuinely hope that people who are part of a residential (or non-residential) college at the ANU and beyond will read this and feel lucky to have the support structures their Halls and Colleges have put in place. Because drinking is fun and partying is fun and being in a ‘Fresher’s Wonderland’ was amazing, but it’s only fun and games until someone puts their arm through a window or writes c**t on your forehead.