On a recent trip back to my university over summer, I ran into an old friend who manages a local bar. He explained that with freshers' week coming up, he and the other owners of pubs and bars in and around the university were giddy at the thought of filling their empty bars with a new pack of nervous students clutching a huge loan cheque. All pub managers know how important they and their bars are to students who want nothing more than to forget about the stresses of their new life and get drunk.
Drinking is seemingly as much part of university life as studying. With the knowledge that 30 per cent of university-leavers will be dependent on drink in some way (to sleep, socialise, get up in the morning or get laid), the National Union of Students and the university governing body are becoming worried that pub-crawls and drinking games are not that good an idea and have come up with a campaign to deter heavy drinking.
The campaign aims to make drinking to get drunk as "socially unacceptable as drink driving". Unfortunately, an estimated 20 per cent of NUS profit comes from student bars, and some universities apparently know very little about the campaign. There is, however, a real problem attached to what appears to be a socially accepted standard of dangerously high student drinking.
Aside from the relatively unalarming NUS-fed statistic that "1 million 18 to 24-year-olds drink to get drunk every week", more worrying figures are available. While some research shows many "average" students are drinking double the recommended amount of units a week (14 units for women; 21 for men), some students I have spoken to say they drink more than 100 units a week - that is roughly the equivalent of 35 pints of premium lager, 50 glasses of wine or 100 shots.
In 1997, Leeds students caused nearly £500,000-worth of damage to university property while "tired and emotional". Many drop out because of drink problems.
Why do students drink so much? According to a 1996 paper Alcoholism in Student Life , by M. den Hollander, who surveyed more than ten UK universities, alcohol is so intrinsic to student life that any event or emotion is "rewarded" by a visit to a pub or off-licence.
Students I spoke to echoed this finding, saying they got drunk because of lack of confidence, boredom, academic and financial pressure, because they wanted to have a good time, to get stinking drunk and, my personal favourite, "to get over that bastard James". Peer pressure is also an underlining factor in determining how much an individual drinks. Most students drink the same amount as those they live or socialise with. One 21-year-old student at Lincoln University exposed his weakness to peer pressure by saying: "If alcoholism is a disease, then I keep catching it off my mates."
Den Hollander suggests that the only way to curb, never mind cure, the problem is to change university lifestyle. But how? Although the NUS deserves some credit for highlighting a very real problem, its hands are somewhat tied. A harsh anti-booze stance could push people away from campus bars and into more expensive pubs, cutting much-needed university income and increasing student spending and therefore debt. And although the NUS says it hopes to encourage "responsible student drinking" - it is producing more advice pamphlets (which, I am told, make wonderful beer mats) - I cannot remember one event that has not been promoted by adverts for cheap booze and "lashings" of fun.
But the profile of the problem certainly does need raising. After all, do we really want 30 per cent of entrants into professions such as medicine and teaching to be dependent on alcohol? Surely they should have a few years in the profession before that happens.