New advice for universities and students on dangers of initiations

Universities UK (UUK), in collaboration with Newcastle University, has today (23 Sept) launched a briefing, Initiations at UK universities, to raise awareness of the dangers of initiations and excessive alcohol consumption among students.

Launched around the time of the start of the new academic year, the briefing sets out recommendations and actions universities should take to prevent and respond to the often dangerous behaviours that arise from initiations events and to drive a change in attitudes towards these events.

This briefing is a response to the tragic death of Newcastle University student Ed Farmer who died following an initiation event. At the inquest in October 2018, the coroner concluded there was a risk of future deaths occurring because students were “unaware of the risks of consuming large quantities of alcohol over a short period of time.”

In response to the coroner’s findings, and supported by Ed’s parents, Jeremy and Helen Farmer, a national working group was set up by UUK chaired by Newcastle University’s Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Chris Day to address these findings.  Today’s briefing from UUK also builds on the work already being done at Newcastle.

The briefing includes a consensus statement on the best way forward from stakeholders across the university and health sectors, examples of emerging good practice, and recommendations for universities including the following:

  1. Adopt a clear definition of what constitutes an initiation which focuses on prohibited behaviours.
  2. Foster cross-working and a whole university approach. This means including work to prevent initiations as part of strategies to tackle harassment and promote good wellbeing and mental health.
  3. Evaluate new initiatives and share knowledge and good practice, continuously assessing progress being made.
  4. Update or develop policies and practices to explicitly refer to initiation events and the problems that arise from them.
  5. Ensure proportionate disciplinary processes and sanctions are in place, noting that a “zero tolerance approach” is unhelpful as it implies initiations do not happen.
  6. Provide clear reporting systems and advertise support available to students.
  7. Raise awareness of initiations and their risks among students and staff. 
  8. Organise appropriate staff training, identifying the levels of training needed for different staff. First responders will need the most training, for example.
  9. Work with the local council, licensees and partners to ensure the campus environment promotes responsible behaviours towards drinking.
  10. Work with alumni to encourage an increased sense of responsibility for the safety of student groups and societies of which they were a part.

Chris Day 100x100Professor Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor and President, Newcastle University and Universities UK board member, said:

“Three years ago we lost a bright, talented, much-loved student in one of the worst ways possible.

“I think there is no doubt that it was the situation Ed found himself in that night which led to him drinking an excessive quantity of alcohol over a very short period of time.  This, together with a lack of knowledge from his fellow students about the dangers of drinking to excess, resulted in the most tragic of outcomes.

“We all wish we could rewind three years and change what happened that night.  But we can’t go back and so instead we are looking forward and doing everything we can to minimise the chances of anything like this happening again.”

Professor Day adds: “Thankfully, initiations which result in serious harm or death are rare, but the impact of these incidents are significant and far-reaching across the university community.

“Universities are well placed to drive a change in attitudes toward excessive alcohol consumption and to contribute to overall culture change around harassment, coercion and bullying.  I hope that all higher education leaders make a commitment to improving their institutions’ policies and processes and to providing a wide-range of initiatives in order to promote long-term culture change with regards to this issue.”

Jeremy Farmer, father of Ed Farmer, said:

''The loss of any young man at the start of their adult life is a tragedy. When the young man in question is one of your own sons, who had intelligence, wit and compassion beyond his years, but yet died so needlessly the loss is all the more devastating.

“Ed had managed to navigate a very easy and enjoyable path through life, but on that night his good fortune well and truly deserted him. Nobody was to blame, and no one should blame themselves. The outcome could have been so different.

“As a family we appreciate the difficulties in stopping these needless deaths, but would like to thank all those involved within the university sector who are working hard to try and reduce the risks of something similar happening again, without impacting on the social lives of students.

“Let us all remember Ed Farmer, and trust that memory will benefit others.”

Chris Skidmore 100x100Universities Minister Chris Skidmore said:

“Today’s new guidance is a welcome step in promoting the safety and wellbeing of students, and warning them of the dangers of initiation activities and especially excessive alcohol consumption.”

“It is a shame that such a tragic case brought this issue to light, but it is important that students will now have access to increased information and that universities can use their position to warn students of the dangers involved in such activities.

“Raising awareness on the potential impact of initiations and excessive alcohol on physical and mental health is vital so that the hundreds of thousands of students starting and returning to their studies this month feel their universities are prioritising their welfare and safety.”

The Newcastle Charter

Following the inquest, a taskforce was launched in Newcastle to bring together the University and its students’ union with Newcastle City Council’s Licensing Authority, Northumbria Police and colleagues in the council’s Public Health team to develop a ‘Newcastle Charter’.

This includes an education programme for all new undergraduates around alcohol, initiations and coercive behaviour, explicitly highlighting the risks associated with consuming alcohol.

Newcastle University has also introduced a new Code of Conduct for organised student events and activities and to coincide with Freshers’ Week, will be working together with colleagues in the city to deliver a city-wide education campaign for students about safety and vulnerability as part of Safe Newcastle.

This includes an undercover policing operation by Northumbria Police to ensure licensed premises in Newcastle do not sell alcohol to those who are already intoxicated.

The Students’ Union runs up to 400 events during Freshers’ Week and of those, 80% are either completely alcohol free or not planned around alcohol.

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