Almost three-quarters of undergraduates have never taken illegal drugs while at university, while more than half support institutions taking tougher action against those that do, according to a new survey.
Research commissioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the University of Buckingham found that 71 per cent had not taken drugs during their time in higher education, while 88 per cent agreed illegal drugs could cause mental health problems in the longer term.
Some 68 per cent think drug use causes problems “for society in terms of contributing to criminality”, according to the YouthSight survey of 1,059 full-time undergraduate students.
The survey also found that the majority of students want their university to take a tougher stance on “students who repeatedly use drugs” (62 per cent) and on “drug dealers” (also 62 per cent).
Nick Hillman, Hepi’s director, said the survey provided an “important corrective to some of the wilder ideas about today’s students”.
“They are more hardworking and less hedonistic than is often supposed,” he said.
The findings also contrast with a report from the National Union of Students, published in April, that suggested that most students (56 per cent) had taken drugs and nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) “showed relaxed attitudes towards student drug use”.
Mr Hillman said the latest survey showed that “most students support their institutions taking a tougher, rather than a more relaxed, line on the use of illegal substances by fellow students”.
Sir Anthony Seldon, Buckingham’s vice-chancellor, is trying to make his university the UK’s first drug-free campus. “With illegal drugs, we have been fiddling while Rome burns,” said Sir Anthony, who added that illegal drug-taking was both a “cause of mental health problems and is a symptom of them”.
Jess Bradley, trans officer at NUS, said that its survey of more than 3,000 students polled around three times as many respondents as YouthSight’s, which was “purely opinion-based whereas we also sought to understand students’ experiences of drug use and the impact that it has on their lives”. The NUS survey was “made available to all students”, not “just specific groups that hold a particular view on student drug use”, Ms Bradley added.
Calling for policy that is “evidence-based rather than [based on] attitudes and values”, she added that there was now “an overwhelming amount of evidence” that “shows that punitive approaches and taking a tougher stance on drugs can discourage people from seeking the help they need”.
“It is highly unlikely that punishing [student drug users] heavily and attempting to create a ‘drug free university’ is going to deal with these issues – in fact it is likely to exacerbate them,” Ms Bradley said.
Among students who have taken illegal drugs in higher education, nearly half (47 per cent) felt under peer pressure to take them, according to the YouthSight survey.
However, the proportion of students who felt that “excessive alcohol” use was a “very serious” threat to students was greater than the proportion who put “illegal drugs” (33 per cent) in the same category, it says.