Universities UK, the representative organisation for UK universities, published a series of guidelines, in collaboration with Newcastle University regarding initiation rituals in University student groups.
The 42-page document, published on 23 September, comes three years after the premature death of a Newcastle University student, Ed Farmer. The first-year student passed away in 2016 as a result of heavy intoxication during an initiation ceremony.
An inquiry revealed that the initiation ritual played a significant role in the tragedy.
UUK’s recommendations aim to serve as guidelines for first-year students and parents. They are also aimed at universities to help them deal with the phenomenon.
This is not to say that all initiations are dangerous, and all should be banned. Social events in societies can be open, friendly, and enjoyable for everyone.
The idea of initiations is perceived by many to be a secret rite of passage freshers have to participate in order to be included in a team or society. The secretive aspect of them is part of what makes them toxic. People might feel scared to report anything they feel uncomfortable with.
Universities UK’s report defines excessive initiation behaviour as ranging from excessive alcohol and substance consumption to peer pressure, coercion, intimidation, and bullying.
These events spread across various societies, but attention has been brought to sports societies’ initiations being particularly excessive, especially at Kent.
It is necessary to point out, beyond the general toxicity initiations can have, the United Kingdom’s problematic history of binge-drinking, especially in universities. The 2019 Global Drugs Survey, which examines nations’ habits of alcohol and drug consumption, placed the United Kingdom first for binge-drinking practices.
Despite a 10% decrease in alcohol consumption in the past three years, the United Kingdom’s relationship with binge-drinking remains concerning. This is where initiations can become dangerous – when peer pressure meets young participants, binge-drinking culture and a lack of report or supervision.
The United Kingdom’s relationship with alcohol has long been complicated. While social drinking remains ordinary, the Office for National Statistics has revealed in 2017 that people aged 16 to 24 are increasingly likely to be teetotallers, but also increasingly likely to participate in binge-drinking.
Extreme initiations, known as hazing in the United States, have become a part of the public discourse in various countries for a while. In France, there have been various reported incidents at hazing ceremonies for decades, such as cases of rape, physical violence, and injuries. The psychologically and morally humiliating aspect of hazing practices has often been underlined.
In France, hazing notably occurs most frequently in smaller ‘elite’ universities or courses perceived as prestigious like medicine or business schools.
While initiations in UK Universities are different, the cult-like aspect remains the same, and the codes are similar: secrecy, rites of passage, a social status that comes with having taken the initiation before.
A 1998 law in France defines hazing (bizutage) as “a person bringing someone – willingly or unwillingly – into enduring or committing humiliating acts during events or meetings linked with the school and socio-educational system”. ‘Bizutage’, in France, is punished with six months’ imprisonment and up to a 7500€ fine.
Initiations might seem attractive to new students, in terms of meeting new people and being a part of the group and while they do not all consist of dangerous or inappropriate behaviour, they do derive from a problematic culture of peer pressure.
Regulating initiations seems difficult. Defining the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is consented to is blurry. Most students taking initiations are legally adults and defining where consent ends and where peer pressure begins has always been obscure.
On initiations, Vice-President (Student Engagement), Emily Window, told InQuire:“ [Kent Union’s] approach to initiations in recent years has been proactive, relying on honest and open communication with student groups and as a result, we have seen far fewer issues and complaints.”
Ms Window mentioned Kent Union’s position on initiations and peer pressure, declaring:
“We are quite clear that students should never feel pressured to do anything they don’t want to do and that Kent Union is here to provide support.”
It is up to the University and Kent Union to actively inform and assist students who struggle to deal with such rituals.
If you are set to take part in an initiation ceremony in this new academic year, remember to stay safe and only do what you feel comfortable with. If you have any concerns, please contact a trusted friend or family member, or Kent Union at email@example.com.
What Kent Union details as harmful behaviours :
- Coercion to undertake activities against a person’s will
- Forced consumption of alcohol
- Humiliation of a person
- Forced acts of nudity/nakedness
- Victimisation of individuals described as “freshers”
- Consumption of abnormal/unpleasant substances
- Bullying, discrimination, harassment
- Sexual harassment
- Physical acts perpetrated against a person’s body e.g. hair shaving
- Psychological torment
- Isolation or ostracising of a person through the removal of their mobile phones, geographical remoteness or physical/psychological isolation