Critics round on premier's boozy plans

February 13, 2004

A Canadian provincial premier has caused uproar by suggesting that the legal drinking age should be reduced to help cut the number of students who leave to study elsewhere in the country.

Lorne Calvert, Saskatchewan premier, told a radio talk show that some students might be basing part of their decision to study in neighbouring Alberta and Manitoba on the legal drinking age there being 18, one year lower than Saskatchewan's.

The police and Students Against Drunk Driving were quick to denounce the premier's suggestion on grounds of public safety.

The government answered the criticism by saying that lowering the legal drinking age was something they were considering only as part of a strategy to address youth-related issues in the province and it would not be introduced without a close look at the possible impact.

But Rob Cunningham, the premier's director of communications, said segregating first-year students from second years in campus bars had had an effect on student life. "I would hate to portray it as the reason we have kids leaving but it does seem odd when everyone else can go to the pub but you," he said. "At 18 years old, you can't have a beer in a pub but you can fight in Afghanistan and vote provincially and federally."

Mr Cunningham said the premier was reflecting on something that had been said by many: that being able to drink on campus was one factor in choosing a university.

Doug Rain, director of student development and academic success at the University of Saskatchewan, challenged the suggestion that drinking age played any part in student decision-making. "Students are not saying, 'I like your institution but I can't drink here when I'm 18 so I won't come here to study'."

He said students were usually lost to other universities because they offered specific programmes not found at Saskatchewan. In a student satisfaction survey on the university's weekend life, the question closest to the issue of drinking was ranked 99th out of 108 in order of importance.

Some 75 per cent of Saskatchewan students make the university their only choice, and enrolment has been rising despite the drinking age.

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