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New advice to students on university initiations

Chris Ison/PA Wire

By Alison Kershaw and Tom Wilkinson
Students must be told about the risks of taking part in initiation ceremonies at university, according to new advice.

It aims to raise awareness about the potential dangers of initiation events that involve excessive drinking, as well as other risky behaviours and activities such as coercion, humiliation or bullying.

The guidance, published by Universities UK in collaboration with Newcastle University, is part of work done in response to the death of Ed Farmer, who died in December 2016 after taking part in an initiation event.

An inquest found that the 20-year-old Newcastle University student's death had resulted from the "toxic effects" of excessive drinking in a short period of time.

In her ruling, the coroner called for first-year students to be given better teaching on the dangers of binge-drinking.

In a foreword to the document, Mr Farmer's parents Jeremy and Helen said: "If students were made aware of the dangers of drinking large volumes of spirits in short periods of time, and maybe aware of the signs of someone that is no longer just drunk but in a life-limiting state and use the example of Ed to give the message some relevance, then possibly just one student might be luckier on a night out than Ed."

The document has been published as hundreds of thousands of students begin degree courses and freshers' week takes place at universities across the UK.

It contains a list of recommendations for universities, including raising awareness of initiations among students and staff, being clear on what constitutes an initiation involving risky behaviour and advertising support available to students.

It does also warn against blanket bans, or a "zero-tolerance approach" to these types of events, because it can push them "into private spaces, such as off-campus accommodation, and so making them more dangerous".

Professor Chris Day, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, told the PA news agency that it is thought many initiation activities go unreported.

Deaths, like that of Mr Farmer, who was a first year economics student, are "vanishingly rare", he said.

"What we are more worried about, given the likelihood that it's quite prevalent across universities, is the sometimes physical but often mental damage that can be done by attending these events, where you are coerced or bullied into doing things you don't want to do," Prof Day said.

"It makes you wonder if it's the cause of students dropping out or not doing so well in exams if they have been through these sorts of events, so we are very keen to stamp it out at all levels, regardless of whether it might cause the very, very rare, occasional death."

It is important to define a "harmful initiation", Prof Day told PA.

"Of course, we have no problem with our societies and clubs going out in the evening with new members and making them feel part of the group, perhaps dressing up in bizarre outfits, etc.

"What we are concerned about is those events that involve coercion or bullying students into doing things that they don't want to do, typically older, more senior students with junior, starting students.

"It could be excess alcohol, it might be ingesting something horrible and toxic or it might be drug-related, it might be getting them to walk along the parapet of a bridge.

"It could be anything like that which has an element of coercion, forcing or bullying which we are trying to stamp out."

Prof Day also said that while much attention is placed on freshers' week, these types of events are just as likely to happen at other times.

"Perhaps you've won a big match and everyone goes out drinking afterwards and again the new members of the team might feel pressure from the senior members to drink too much.

"So we have been very careful in the report to broaden our definition to initiation or initiation-like events where the key thing is this coercion, or bullying.

"So it doesn't matter what time of the year it is, whether it's on campus or off campus, the education packages we're putting in place, the staff education, the policy changes we have put in place, are all addressing these issues across the whole year."

Universities minister Chris Skidmore said: "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."

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