Should colleges have bar and sell alcohol?

David Held, University College, Durham University, UK

Universities and Colleges are environments for the development of young people. While being primarily institutions that provide a sustained education and research, they are places where many students experiment in the process of growing up as young adults. It should not be assumed that this experimental phase of life is an end-state. Universities provide a context of cultivation, development and growth, academic, social and personal. Few students get trapped in the phase of ‘wild’ experimentation.

Nearly all University students are over the age of 18. Where this is not the case, of course, special provisions must apply in order to ensure that younger students are provided with a more protected environment. On the whole, however, the student body comprises legal adults and legal adults differ in how they choose to spend their time and the pleasures that they seek. Pluralism with respect to the choices made and the pleasures sought is inevitable. It is a premise of liberalism that one person’s choices about what they do and how they act in their private lives may be very different from those of others and, unless there is a very good reason, freedom should trump all other considerations. In short, paternalism should stay out of the free choices adults make.

Of course, the matter does not rest here. Private choices can pervade the public sphere in any number of ways. It is abundantly clear that excess alcohol consumption crosses the border between private and public domains. It does so when ‘harm’ is caused by the action of some on the wellbeing of others. Harm means the intrusion on the life choices and lifestyles of others without their consent and consideration.  In all of these cases the harms caused by the behaviour of individuals impact adversely on other people, and, accordingly, can be identified as harms because of this.

There are lots of potential harms of this kind: extreme self-harm, which thankfully is fairly rare, anti-social behaviours of diverse kinds, initiation rites and drinking clubs, laddish and laddette culture, all with potential impact on local communities. In order to offset these risks, Universities and Colleges need systematic policies to: mitigate against the vulnerability of students – physical, social and sexual – under the influence of heavy alcohol drinking; develop strong educational programmes focused on modest and responsible drinking; and inevitably, when all else fails, and drunken behaviours spills into the public domain, introduce some clear rules and regulations to try and check this.

In this context, Colleges have a hugely significant role to play, both in creating a lively social environment for their student communities and ensuring that the use of bars in this context is not simply associated with alcohol and excess drinking. Of course, alcohol influences the way social spaces such as bars are developed and used. Since in the UK nearly all students will be over the age of 18, removing alcohol from College bars will simply drive students to drinking in bars off-site. Long experience suggests that potential student vulnerability is best checked, and responsible drinking best cultivated, by keeping students, where possible, in the social locations of colleges and universities.

Much follows from this.  Heads of Colleges need discretion to manage bar opening hours, to help promote a diverse range of social activities in their Colleges, and to provide incentives for students to spend a ‘night out’ in. Students should be encouraged to use College bars, and College bars should become theatres of engagement and diverse activity. A 24-hour café culture, where alcohol is used only from time to time, would be an environment in which students could meet and engage in a lively context. Free soft drinks should be available, where possible, during bar opening hours, and rigorous attempts should be made to encourage students to stay in the College for the evening by providing a diverse range of activities and attractions.

Policies need to be in place to ensure zero tolerance across the Colleges of anti-social, abusive and disrespectful behaviour. Alternatives to monetary fines might also be explored; bans, for example, from College formal dinners or other College events, maybe more effective under some circumstances. In addition, policies need to be developed not just for college residents but for college members who are not resident. Knowing that students can be both extremely drunk and noisy in the their local surroundings compels Colleges to treat this seriously. This is both a matter of encouraging students to stay in Colleges as long as possible in the evenings, but also of promoting an understanding and awareness that student life is not the norm and most other people are governed by the demands of a more complex everyday world.

In short, bars have a useful and engaging role in the life of a College but, as with everything, context matters – in this particular context, respect for fellow students, academics and local residents is a crucial condition for bar culture to thrive.


2 thoughts on “Should colleges have bar and sell alcohol?

  1. Dear David,
    thank you for your long and considerate article on college bars and drinking.
    I think it covers all aspects of the topic and the problems which may arise.
    Most of us will know that the reality of running a college bar and controlling abusive drinking
    is much more complex and depends on a number of factors and constellations which may constantly change.
    It seems to me that regular drinking in Britain is more accepted, certainly among males, than in my native Germany and that you are more tolerant as to the side effects.
    I’m wondering whether other collegiate universities, outside Europe, having bars, have similar problems or whether there are countries where public drinking (and I would include college bars) is socially more stigmatized.
    Heinz Fuchs, St John’s College, Durham University, UK


  2. “Removing alcohol from College bars will simply drive students to drinking in bars off-site.”

    I don’t agree that it is as simple as this, having been an undergraduate at Durham University with a year studying in Canada.

    In the Canadian university I was living in first year accommodation (not collegiate, but signs that the university would be great if it was) and the drinking age was 1-2 years above most incoming students. This resulted in not going out to university bars or off-site pubs/clubs. However getting booze via fake/shared ID or friends with ID was very easy. I lived on what was known as the party floor, every week had lots of drinking on Friday, Saturday, and at least one spontaneous “school night”. Parties were banned, but there are always loopholes or ways to hide.

    With no public bar, there was nobody to stop serving them because they were in control of the beer fridge under their bed. I had a rare sight of students gaining alcohol addictions (combined with relaxed marijuana law enforcement) that related to the stress of university and ability to hide in your room. Live-in welfare roles staffed by older students were focused on patrolling floors to stop parties (in practice only moving them on or always turning up to the aftermaths). Looking back at the year it was clear I took on a paternal role that partially filled the welfare void. Following running drunks that might end up in the sea, comforting people that had lost/smashed phones between parties, etc.

    It shouldn’t be a surprise I now volunteer with “Durham StreetLights” helping in a similar way between 10pm and 3am on Saturday nights. The majority of people we help aren’t students, partially because they more frequently “pre-drink” in their bedrooms. Although pre-drinking is a horrible concept wrapped up with binge-drinking, I am annoyed and fearful that they no longer see the college bar as the place to pre-drink. It’s homely, members/friends-only, and it used to be considerably cheaper than the pubs.


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