Extreme student initiations: more complex than a form

Film Editor Elisabetta Pulcini highlights how universities are failing to address the problem of initiations.

Elisabetta Pulcini
23rd February 2020
Image: Pixabay
Initiations remain a pervasive problem in university culture, and institutions are failing their students in addressing the factors that go at the bottom of this pervasive and complicated issue.

Anonymous tip-off forms

British Universities & College Sports (BUCS) has stated its commitment to eradicating the practice of extreme initiations. “Students should understand that problem initiations are not permitted by universities and will not be tolerated by BUCS” said Vince Mayne, CEO of BUCS. In pursuit of this goal, their website provides a form for the signalling of dangerous practices: the form allows anyone to make an anonymous complaint, specifying the university, sport and details of the incident. The commitment to a “fully anonymous” report is commendable, because it will allow those who desire to do so to come forward.

According to their website, BUCS will then report the incident to the institution, who will then “be asked to investigate the incident and report back their findings”. While this might be a useful first step in addressing extreme student initiations, it does not go to the root of the problem. In most cases, students may not be able to recognise when an initiation has gone too far: the attachment to traditions and the effect of group mentality might lead those most vulnerable to close an eye in respect of these problematic practices.

Ed Farmer

It must be emphasized that simply reporting an incident, leading to an investigation, might be too little too late. This is evident in the case of first-year Newcastle University student Ed Farmer, 20, who tragically passed away following a triple-vodka bar crawl initiation ceremony. The Independent reports that “first-year students were expected to complete the initiation by having their heads shaved before crawling into a garage to drink vodka from a pig’s head”: this is a sign of complete disregard for the clear risks of these actions, in favour of an apparent group cohesion. This highlights the one factor that should be addressed by universities in the abolition of initiations: the danger of group mentality, and how binge drinking culture serves to take this to the extreme.

Alcohol culture

Culture of extreme alcohol consumption is not exclusively a Newcastle problem. Universities are clearly aware of this problem, yet they are not focusing on educating the students. While addressing the single events is necessary and imperative, it might not necessarily prevent students from pursuing the same behaviour. A more explicit commitment to education on this issue should be addressed. As a third-year student, I’ve received more information on the dangers of a fire than those of alcohol poisoning. At the same time, it is unrealistic to completely banish the culture of drinking at university. Therefore, whilst it is useful to advise to not drink in excess, students should be educated on how to recognize an emergency situation and how to act to help their peers. The case of Ed Farmer was particularly heartbreaking because of the suggestion that his death could’ve been avoided, had his peers called an ambulance in time: according to Dr Reuben Saharia  “Had he been in a hospital environment prior to cardiac arrest I would expect that patient to survive.”

Mental health

The second and maybe most often forgotten element of these offences is the lack of effective mental health guidance. At the core of the performances of these initiations is a need to belong, which is tragically familiar for most people transitioning from home to university life. While peer mentoring and tutoring help this transition, they are not necessarily sufficient. A full commitment to creating a healthy environment should be a priority for any institution housing possibly vulnerable young people, so that they do not harm themselves in the desperate search for acceptance. This is seen not only in initiations rituals, but in the increasing problem of anxiety and depression. In 2018, this was evidenced as a problem at Bristol University, after BBC News reported that “11 students took their own lives there since 2016”.

It is hard to point to one certain solution to the problem of initiations. Mental health, binge-drinking culture and group mentality all play a part. Therefore, while the form by the BUCS might be a helpful part of this problem, it should by no means be the only action taken against these issues.

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AUTHOR: Elisabetta Pulcini
Film Editor 19/20 and Law (LLB) graduate. An Italian passionate about journalism and the law: always up for a debate. @ElisabettaPul

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