Last orders? Freshers call time on booze-fuelled initiation rites | Education
Each university has its own horror story: the freshers who had chillies rubbed on their genitals; the students forced to apple bob for a dead rat in a barrel of cider; the hockey players who had cooking oil poured into their eyes; or the new recruits made to down drinks that had been mixed with dog food or had live goldfish in them.
Not only do such degrading, and often dangerous, initiation ceremonies persist, anecdotal evidence suggests they are becoming more pernicious. Some unfortunate freshers arriving at university this month will be forced to perform even more outlandish rituals than their predecessors to join a club or society.
“It’s a problem that’s not necessarily worse in terms of frequency,” said Vince Mayne, CEO of British Universities & Colleges Sport (Bucs), “but sometimes the extremes have got worse.”
It might seem that the initiation ceremony is an endangered species. Students are drinking less and more are choosing not to drink at all. More awareness of what constitutes bullying and inappropriate behaviour is apparent on many campuses.
But two factors are helping it to thrive: the rise of social media, which has seen humiliating ceremonies posted on Instagram and Facebook for others to copy, and the importing from the US of “hazing”, the deliberate act of harassing someone or causing them embarrassment so that they might experience emotional or physical harm.
“The level of degradation is quite severe,” said Carwyn Jones, professor of sports ethics at Cardiff Metropolitan University. “There is a level of competition between years. It’s a case of ‘this year we’re in charge, so we’ve got to make it worse than what we had’.”
Last year Jones set his students an essay on initiation ceremonies. “It gave me a disturbing insight into what went on and the ambivalent attitude among some students towards them, mostly among those who were on sporting teams.”
Excessive drinking was a common thread, as was personal harm. Jones was told how a university swimming team had taped wine bottles to the hands of new members, one of whom had ended up in A&E.
Once, such ceremonies might have gone largely ignored. But the death in 2016 of Newcastle University student Ed Farmer, 20, following an “initiation-style” bar crawl, has proved a wake-up call.
Farmer’s father, Jeremy, has called for a “line in the sand” to be drawn so that “from here on in everybody knows initiations are banned and if you step over that line you will be removed from university”.
In response to Farmer’s death, Newcastle University and Universities UK will this month unveil an initiative aimed at educating all students – male and female; the ceremonies do not discriminate – about the risks. It follows a high-level roundtable meeting in July attended by a host of organisations concerned with student welfare.
“It is vital that university is a safe and positive experience for everyone,” said John de Pury, assistant director of policy at Universities UK. “No one should feel pressured into risky behaviours, on or off campus. UUK has been working with Newcastle University and other partners on a briefing for universities to improve understanding of initiations and to set out what universities can do to better protect students and encourage long-term behavioural change.”
The most dramatic response has been from Bucs. The organisation, which promotes many of the sports associated with the more notorious initiations, is concerned that the ceremonies are deterring young people from joining teams.
“When students contact me saying ‘I’m too scared of my initiation – I don’t want to play sport any more’, that’s a terrible situation to be in,” Mayne said. “We know of junior international players who’ve gone to university and said, ‘I’m going to stop playing because I don’t want to go through the initiation’. When a female student at university contacts me to say her boyfriend is petrified of the initiation on a bus coming back from a game we really need to do something about it.” The organisation is working with academics from the universities of Chester and Liverpool Hope on a scheme called Changes – Challenging Hazing and Negative Group Events in Sport – that trains student officers to develop positive team-building exercises. Another initiative, run with the University of Coventry, will teach students what to do if they encounter an initiation ceremony that concerns them.
A meeting with the leading public schools is also planned. “The sports we have problems with are seen by many as public school sports – rugby, hockey, snow sports,” Mayne said. “If we can cut the pipeline, we might not have a problem in a few years’ time.”
From December, in a significant shift, the Bucs website will allow students concerned about initiation ceremonies to submit anonymous tip-offs. “We’ve often received complaints but our response has previously been ‘it’s not our problem: contact your institution’,” Mayne said. “I can fully understand why students might not want to report it internally. They may worry about reprisals, or about not being selected if they speak out, but they can report it to us and we can raise it with their institution on their behalf.”
Those institutions that fail to take appropriate action could be excluded from Bucs competitions.
The National Union of Students, which has been part of the consultation with UUK on developing the new strategy to curb initiation ceremonies, welcomes tougher action.
“It’s important that institutions continue to work with their student unions to do more to tackle these kind of harmful practices, to promote safer and more inclusive behaviours among its students, which should include taking stronger action on initiations,” said Eva Crossan Jory, NUS vice-president (welfare).
Ultimately, though, the battle against initiation ceremonies will be won not with new sanctions but a new understanding.
“Students say, ‘It was done to me so I’m going to do it to the next lot and I’m going to make it a little worse’,” Mayne said. “We need to put a brake on that. We used to send kids up chimneys. We didn’t think that was a great thing so we stopped it.”