The politics of binge drinking

[Originally published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free]

Last week I was discussing the ups and downs of student drinking with some fellow PhD students. In general, there seemed to be a steady increase throughout their undergraduate degrees which culminated at the end of the second year (accompanied by a nadir in their second-year exam marks), before giving way to an abstemious third year of buckling down. The taboo of drinking alone was broken either during the depths of dissertation despair during their master’s degree or in the first year of their PhD, when the size of the task ahead proved too great to face sober. Drinking and learning, for us at least, has been deeply intertwined.

PhD students are probably not the people that the NUS and the government had in mind when they announced a scheme to tackle binge-drinking among university students today. Although the issue of postgraduate mental health has received some much-needed attention recently, both the NUS and the government are more likely to be concerned by the boozy undergraduate culture, and the public perception of that culture, than they are by a handful of postgrads and their bottles of corner-shop Blossom Hill.

Despite occasional bouts of hand-wringing about student decadence and licentiousness, binge-drinking is now largely accepted as an indispensable feature of student life. The NUS did some work with the charity Drinkaware in 2010 to try to address the problem, but now it seems the government wants a piece of the moralising action too.

Students might be forgiven, however, for resorting to blackout-inducing levels of drinking when they are amassing an average £40,000 worth of debt. Half of them do this only to end up in non-graduate jobs. I should add that they’re the lucky ones. Two out of five graduates are still looking for any sort of work six months after graduating. The prospects for graduates are pretty grim. Nevertheless, in the age of austerity there’s no time to mess around at university. When one of the mythical dividing lines of political identification crudely separates “hard workers” from “scroungers”, it’s no surprise that if you want to get on then you need to get on with it.

The valorisation of work ties in with a puritanical attitude towards alcohol. Students, like the unemployed, are classed as the undeserving poor. Not only are they dependent on the state for their continued existence (a moral failing in itself) but they also have the audacity to publicly enjoy their lives by spending money on non-essential goods. By preferring the pub to quiet contemplation of the generosity of their benefactors, students provide a constant reminder that hard work is not the supreme value, if it’s of any value at all.

Far from being separate developments, the commercialisation of university and the abhorrence of binge-drinking are two sides of the same ideological coin. While members of the Bullingdon Club direct the economy and the public subsidise parliamentary bars, the young and the poor are admonished for their lack of moral vigour.

Although cliches abound about the value of independence at university, it’s truer than ever for this generation that university may be the only time that they are able to be free from both the parochialism of home and the crushing responsibility of adulthood (though those two great evils have terrifyingly merged in recent years).

Binge-drinking has played an important role in my life at university, although I struggle to maintain my enthusiasm for it now. My closest friendships were forged in the sticky alcoholic heat of crowded student halls bedrooms and through the shared pain of hung-over mornings, and I doubt that I could have made such attachments without the inhibition-shattering, confidence-boosting power of alcohol.

Although students’ proclivity for drunkenness could indicate a sort of nihilistic despair about their futures, it could equally demonstrate the joy of their brief freedom. Joy or despair, students don’t need to be lectured and moralised. With graduates in crisis the government should remember that it’s austerity that will hurt students most, not cheap pints at the students’ union bar.

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