The NUS is pushing for a nation-wide ban on initiation ceremonies at British universities as the University of Gloucester launched an inquiry into allegations of ‘bullying and intimidation’ after footage was secretly obtained of students taking part in strange ‘initiation’ rites. These included having a plastic bag strapped over their heads, drinking and vomiting whilst another student dressed in a military uniform urged them to drink.
Several universities have issued bans on compulsory initiation ceremonies, including the University of Reading, which has introduced a strict set of guidelines for sports clubs and organizations following fears that initiations could promote anti-social behaviour or even lead to death. A University of Exeter student, died of alcohol poisoning following a golf club pub crawl and another died from choking on his own vomit after an initiation ceremony. Both Exeter and Staffordshire Universities have since completely prohibited initiations, decisions which the NUS hopes other student unions will also take.
Initiation or ‘welcome’ ceremonies have become a traditional part of the Fresher experience at universities. The ceremonies potentially involve binge-drinking and carrying out comic or embarrassing tasks. Such experiences are meant to be ways of helping students to bond with their new team mates, fostering a sense of acceptance and camaraderie. However, recent criticisms surround the practice of initiation, with claims of students being bullied and intimidated by senior students into engaging in degrading and dangerous activities.
According to the The University of Sussex Students’ Union (USSU), Sussex does not practice initiations. Rather, new team members are invited to take part in ‘Welcome to the Club’ events. Such occasions can occur only under a set of conditions, which include ensuring that the organizers submit an event outline and risk assessment, the provision of non-alcoholic alternatives and making sure that the sports club makes it clear that the event is not compulsory for new team members. The decision to introduce ‘Welcome to the Club’ events and not ban initiation ceremonies altogether came about, according to the Activities Office, because of concerns that prohibiting the practice would only drive it underground. Significantly, the footage of the initiation ceremony at Gloucester University took place on a street outside the university grounds.
It seems that USSU’s policy has come into effect, with one female Sussex sports team member reporting: ‘We don’t like the connotations of the word initiation, it’s associated with humiliating people, making people do things they don’t want to do’. They firmly state that the events are completely voluntary, and contain no coercive elements. Rather, ’Welcome to the Club’ is ‘really beneficial as it makes you feel part of something’, helping new and old members alike to bond together as a team.
In one such event, participants in pirate fancy-dress were divided into groups in order to complete light-hearted tasks. Although drinking was certainly an option, it was not a prerequisite, with one team member sticking to lemonade for the whole of the night. ‘The stuff planned is really fun and you’re not forced to do anything’.
The video that appeared on YouTube of a initiations ceremony run by University of Gloucester students
In response to media reports that students were often set dangerous and risky tasks in ‘welcome’ ceremonies, the Sussex student claimed that the opposite occurred, with organizers erring on the side of caution, carrying out health and safety checks before the event. USSU, seemingly, have sharpened up their policy on ensuring a safe experience for freshers, with the negative publicity in the media that has plagued initiations causing Sussex and other universities to become more vigilant about the issue. The NUS, however, is still intent on imposing outright bans in all universities. Though they recognise that ‘there is a serious and legitimate argument about pushing initiation activity underground and thus not being in a position to regulate it’, they nevertheless ‘strongly encourage all students’ unions to ban these dangerous and reckless initiation ceremonies.’