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Time to put a lid on it

Oxford’s drinking culture is known for the “work hard, play harder” mentality adopted by its university students. Most social interactions centre on the pub, the very conveniently subsidised college bars, or even formal dinners. It’s inescapable. Students are incentivised to attend networking events with on-the-house prosecco, offering a taste of the drinking culture at the workplace. 

However, as you progress through your degree, having that extra glass becomes less appealing when considering the inevitable, next-day hangover. I’ve noticed how your own drinking evolves just as much as you do throughout your time at university.

I remember being a first year and witnessing jaws drop when somebody mentioned that they didn’t drink. But over time, people stopped caring. I believe that having open discussions is key, especially its inclusivity, as social interactions revolving around alcohol are so normalised that individuals not participating are almost unheard of. The apparent decrease in drinking can be described as ‘sober curiosity’, as the author of Sober Curious, Ruby Warrington, has dubbed it. The term describes the self-reflection of one’s alcohol consumption, and its prevalence corresponds to fewer and fewer people feeling pressured to drink at every given opportunity. 

According to a UK university-wide survey by Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS), 81% of students said that drinking and getting drunk are a part of university culture. It is not inconceivable that those who do not drink might even doubt whether or not they are receiving the ‘full uni experience’. 

According to the same survey, nearly two thirds (61%) of students drink at home or at a friend’s house before going on a night out.

A student told Cherwell that they felt as though not drinking was a social barrier as they felt “weird being the only one who didn’t drink” and they would never attend ‘pres’ or ‘pre-drinks’ where “everyone bonded and got to know each other beforehand”. The idea that students have to drink to feel included needs to be broken down, and seeing the rise in alcohol-free options or even alcohol-free events on weekdays is a helpful step towards this. However, another student from St. John’s College addressed the financial barriers regarding alcohol-included tickets. Attending as a non-drinker, they said, simply “isn’t worth the money”.

Moreover, the drinking culture at Oxford is hardly reflective of one’s social experiences after graduation. As individuals from different cultures and upbringings enter our lives, it is unrealistic to expect everyone else to conform to the student drinking lifestyle that we are accustomed to at Oxford. However, non-drinkers remain a minority. According to DrinkAware, only 20% of adults aged 16+ were non-drinkers in 2019, and in 2021, 53% of adults aged between 18-24 said they had an alcoholic drink in a pub, restaurant or bar the previous week.

Despite the inevitably high likelihood of encountering drinkers during and after university, it is nonetheless important to highlight the shift in views on alcohol consumption in the workplace, especially in the private sector. Research by DrinkAware shows that private sector employees are more likely to be expected to drink at work events than those who work in the public sector. Private sector employees are also 2.5 times more likely to have alcohol subsidised by their workplace. However, in 2022, 130,000 Britons took part in Dry January compared to 4,000 in 2013. Whilst this 32.5x increase seems impressive, this figure is still only a quarter of the UK adult population.

Britain’s drinking culture is certainly not going away. On the whole, everyone faces social challenges, whether you are a drinker, a non-drinker, or even ‘sober curious’. Although alcohol can bring people together, it can also leave a fair number of people on the outskirts of social settings. Ultimately, we should always refrain from placing pressure on others to participate in drinking, and Oxford is the place to start. 

Image Credit: Jorge Royan//CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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