Insight: binge drinking on UK campuses alienates foreign students

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 7:18pm

It's Carnage, literally, in university cities across Britain, and many young international students may be wondering what has hit them.

Carnage has been voted "the UK's number one student event" - according to its website - and is a staple of Freshers' Week.

Buy the T-shirt, cut it to skimpy shreds according to the fancy dress theme, and use it as a ticket for one long bar crawl that has been known to turn city centres into, well, carnage.

As the term kicks off, the party has just begun, and for some students it will continue for much of the academic year. Alcohol in large quantities will feature prominently in their university experience.

Having witnessed one of these events on a cold English night, one thing was evident: very few Hong Kong and other international students were there. Shivering in a long queue to the next bar, and becoming increasingly ill as the night wears on, is not their idea of fun.

Rather than being an opportunity to make friends from different cultures, such nights seem to drive home an early wedge.

Hong Kong and mainland students have told me that although they do make friends from around the world while studying in Britain, they don't mix much with the locals, and cite alcohol as a reason.

Many overseas students now consider the drinking culture on British campuses an issue. It has even been highlighted as a minus point by guidance counsellors in Hong Kong international schools.

Head teachers in Britain have complained, too. They have accused universities of ignoring binge drinking and not doing enough to help young people settle into university.

Research led by Dr Anthony Seldon, headmaster of British public school Wellington College, released earlier this year, found 80 per cent of more than 100 school leaders surveyed had serious concerns about the pastoral care for young people in universities, and nine out of ten thought academics turned a blind eye to drunkenness.

Rather than having the best time of their lives, an "unacceptable number" of students suffer psychological problems as they make this rite of passage, says Seldon, who describes today's 18-year-olds as less robust than earlier generations.

Vice-chancellors claimed this was not their fault, but reflected the state of wider society and that student unions also encouraged alcohol-free activities.

It takes initiative to work around the prevalent drinking culture and enjoy the other opportunities universities have on offer. But not all students are so resourceful, and either end up lonely, or confined to their national cliques.

Hong Kong campuses have their peculiarities, too, that raise the eyebrows of incoming international students. The "happy cornering" meted out on males during birthdays and orientation week is a case in point. For the uninitiated this involves three to four "executioners" carrying their victim by their arms and legs and bashing his groin against a corner - even a closing and opening elevator, according to one account. "This is something I will never understand," blogged the Lost Traveller international student. I could not agree more.

It may be the case that wherever you go, the local student body appears more frivolous and less hard-working than those who have invested so much time and money to travel from overseas.

In the past decade the number of students studying outside of their home country has more than doubled to 4.5 million, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

To benefit from the international experience, they need to first get over the culture shock and be ready to broaden their horizons in ways they did not expect. Expecting home students to be more sensitive to how they appear to those from beyond their borders may be too much to hope for.

When events like Carnage hits town, most students will be even more oblivious. This may be one of the biggest challenges for internationalisation. Katherine Forestier is director of the consultancy Education Link Limited