Libby Farrier-Williams is Programme Director in the Department of Business, Law, and Society at St Mary's University Twickenham

When pandemics end, the young take risks. That’s the simplified story that the media and the history books would have us believe as they predict a summer of hedonism to follow the fifteen months of isolation we’ve all just experienced.

That’s interesting, because when I carried out a covert ethnographic study of student value co-creation in the student engagement experience in 2018, I found that sex, drugs and alcohol played important roles in the generation of undergraduate student satisfaction, pleasure, and popularity – and therefore ”value” in its widest sense.

So following recent reports and news articles in which discussion around alcohol abuse and sexual harassment has risen up the agenda, I’ve been thinking about what might happen “after” Covid, with a view to making suggestions for institutions and SUs to help shape student culture.

I should say at the outset that my research focussed on fairly stereotypical student life. My study focussed particularly on the hedonists – those involved in the big student sports clubs and societies whose “big name personalities” come to dominate student media articles.

Not all students share these values – many have wider challenges and other factors govern their behavioural choices. And while I focus here on negative headlines and stories, involvement in student group activity should nevertheless be encouraged as it is a key factor in student satisfaction and outcomes like mental health, retention and academic confidence.

But it is important to consider what happens in these groups and how behaviours are influenced and recreated so we can consider how to make those experiences more positive, and the positive aspects more widely experienced by the student body.

How student value is shaped by their peers

It’s widely recognised that the student perspective of “value” changes over their degree journey – but a clear understanding of how to respond to these changes has not yet emerged.

Students enter university with a set of fairly widely shared “things” that they think they value and assume will dominate their engagement choices – including getting their degree, employment, making friends for life, and to get the “whole” student experience. In my research, it was the latter couple that became more complex and shaped student behaviours, activities, choices and culture.

Students enter university with reasonable expectations – they will sit in large lecture halls, take part in the employability offerings, and go out a few nights a week with friends. But in their first few weeks, the students I observed explored platforms and people across social, academic and extra-curricular activities. Often labelled as a “transition” stage, these students responded to the norms of the environment and adjust to what is expected of them. They valued the forming of social relationships, socialising, and being part of something – so conformed to a group of actors.

The first few weeks are seen as a key opportunity for universities to make an impact and set a precedent, but after induction week this is largely ignored by students. Instead, I saw first year undergraduates get swept up in the excitement and freedom of university, and their behaviours were heavily influenced by more experienced students who ended up controlling their actions for the rest of their “fresher” year.

In these early stages, models of drinking and certain behaviours were set – students responded as they adopted “banter” and pressures to drink excessively, have casual sex, and do embarrassing things. If students did not conform or find friendship groups that had similar views, they were likely to miss out on social relationships and being part of something that provides a sense of community.

While it is great that students form relationships quickly, it can contribute to the alcohol abuse and sexual harassment culture that dominates student life. Anyone in a students sports club will have stories of being forced to eat or drink disgusting things until they are sick, getting naked, or even performing sex acts as part of their weekly “fun”. The more you embarrass yourself or put yourself in danger, the more likely you are to be accepted. A common term said by final years is:

The more we bully you the more we like you, only then are you in the club”

The question some ask is – why are students willingly doing this? Why would they not just make other friends?

The answer is that students value, and are seeking, self-indulgence, pleasure, popularity and acceptance. For the students I saw, many behaved in ways they would never do at home, but they enjoyed the attention and accolades it brought them.

When you become a “BNOC’ (Big Name On Campus), you feel pride, your self-confidence rises, and you have to maintain that status going forward. Striving for popularity and a sense of belonging means nothing is secret at university – whether you drunkenly threw up over yourself, caught a sexually transmitted disease, or just fell asleep before even going out – it’s all a success story for the friendship circle.

Dangers and harm

Whilst this all sounds like students enjoy these aspects, there is a dark and toxic culture that goes with it. We all hear about initiations and the alcohol abuse that goes with being part of this culture and the “popular” gang, but we hear less about the sexual harassment that goes with it. When students leave university life and realise being a “BNOC” was not the most important thing, they realise where they crossed the line or where they enabled others to force them to cross the line.

Sex was an integrated part of the student experience – it consumes time, and dominates conversations. Women were under the illusion that if they wanted to be popular and part of the social group they had to be part of a sex culture. They could not escape it – daily discussion revolved around boasts of sexual conquests, how they snuck out of their flat, and gossiping about who was kissing who last night. If they were not having it, they were labelled the “virgin” and bullied – if they were having a lot of it, then they were the “slut” and bullied. There was no win, so students learned to laugh it off.

Every woman I know has tried to say “no” but were being relentlessly pressured or made to feel guilty. Every woman I know has pretended to not have condoms, forgotten to take the pill, or said it was their “time of the month”. I am also confident that most of the men involved would never do this sober – but women cannot trust drunk men to listen or understand the word no.

Many students do enjoy these activities, and they look back at these times with fond memories they can laugh about. It is common knowledge that many students make friends for life through the clubs and societies they join at university. Also, it is established that people who engage in sports, for example, make great employees for their teamwork and charismatic personalities. Some of these experiences may even be “character building”.

But because students can’t share feelings of shame or hurt – because that would make them weak and lose them their place in the social group – we go round and round in circles each year, setting the same precedent to the new incoming students (and doing the same harm). It causes many to disengage with extra-curricular activities, and limits the value they might get from their student experience.

So if Covid-19 represents an opportunity to break part of that cycle, we should take it.

What’s next?

There’s no doubt that the sorts of student I observed will be excited to be part of a social group again.

But we now have a host of final year undergraduates that didn’t complete their first year in person, that won’t have been through some of the initiations I’ve described and will have barely touched on some of the experiences spoken about here.

Final year undergrads were in lockdown and isolated rather than feeling the effects of peer pressure – will they have the thought process of “well it was done to me”? And as the news and social media highlights sexual abuse and mental health, we ought to assume that Gen Z will take these issues more seriously.

While universities are rightfully subject to criticisms, it’s not surprising that they are unsure about how to really tackle these issues. If you asked students about the role of alcohol abuse and sexual harassment, they would all recognise there is an issue, but many would follow up by saying that they themselves are not part of the problem. Many students cannot identify where the line is between them having fun and potentially abusing themselves and/or others.

That provides a challenge and an opportunity for universities and their SUs – to take the opportunity presented by an almost totally brand new cohort of students who have had little to no involvement in this culture, and attempt to help its emerging leaders to reset norms, expectations and behaviours in the student community.

And it means intervening early on – finding ways to help, enable and incentivise a more diverse group of students to run positive activities, helping those student leaders to help students to recognise risks, sharing real stories that resonate, and engaging “older” year students in re-setting campus conduct norms.

Our temptation will be to pour focus on freshers – but it’s those who’ve been through the pandemic that are now keen to lead others where we’ll make the most difference.

At Wonkfest Digital on 9-10 June we’ll be thinking through how universities can Build Back Higher after the Covid-19 pandemic. Find out more about Wonkfest Digital and get your ticket here. 

5 responses to “We should take the opportunity to break the cycle of harmful student behaviours

  1. It is good this article makes use of an image of a tired out academic. I think everything in this article is very sensible but as always who is going to do it?

    Every year the list of things that academics are expected to be involved in increases but the hours in the day don’t.

  2. I have a lot of time for this article. Listening to students is informative. We have spent far more time this year listening to students and their feedback. This wouldn’t have happened during a normal year. We’ve had the opportunity to find out what works best, and not just what works. We also found out a lot more about student engagement. It is now much clearer what students struggle with and why. We’ve had to find ways to gain students’ trust and provide a safe space for them to talk. It is clear to me that students do make decisions based on their perception of their friends and peers. This often goes against the advice we might have given them. For me, there is no going back and we’ll keep listening as much as we can. On reflection, we did plenty of work tinkering with the student experience that wasn’t as effective and was far more time-consuming than the work we are doing now.

  3. What universities are these where this is happening? It seems like the author has zeroed in on the sports union/society culture at a handful of very rah rah universities? This is more reminiscient of the frat culture in US unis than anything I’ve seen here.

  4. This piece highlights well some of the transition stage pinch points into university which has been exacerbated by C19.

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