The alcohol effect

Unite Students city manager Einita Sohal asks: ‘What is there for the thousands of students who don’t want alcohol in their lives?’

For those of us who provide homes to students, we are constantly evolving to new seasons and new ways of working. For example, in September, estates work comes to an end, rooms are refreshed and everything made perfect for a new army of students. Some 580,000 UCAS applicants wanted to study in the UK this year, and 43,000 of them have made Unite Students their home.

When check-in weekend arrives students are faced with new questions and choices: “Should I go on that bar crawl?”, “Is ’90s night with 50p shots a good idea?”, “I don’t want to dress up as a Smurf or Viking warrior – does that mean I can’t go?”

The decisions these questions demand can make or break friendship groups, and frequently involve plenty of alcohol.

It’s an intensely social time. Throw alcohol into the mix, and the potential for unexpected and unwanted issues grows wings. We can’t be totally sure when the seeds of discord are sown, but as a rule problems between flatmates will surface about a fortnight after students start at university. We have a duty to act responsibly and ‘flat chats,’ hosted by us, will often resolve disagreements. 

The Birmingham experiment

For most, the boozy freshers’ experience is a once-in-a-lifetime thing; not especially healthy but fun and, ultimately, harmless. But what is there for the growing number who choose to decline alcohol? We have a responsibility to provide a successful home experience to them too. Some Students’ Unions are also looking into alternative, sober options.

A sober freshers’ week especially suits students whose religious beliefs put alcohol off limits. Given its high number of non-drinking students, in 2014 Unite Students in Birmingham led the way in offering alcohol-free freshers’ concepts.

We helped flatmates get acquainted by putting ice-breaker activities and team quizzes in the flat. We hold mini events such as offering healthy breakfasts, a fruit and vegetable juice bar, cookery classes, fitness plans, finance planning advice, hosting ‘mocktail’ nights and offering local authentic food.

These events do not have to be complicated, and in fact we have found that the simpler the event the better it is received. We have seen an increase in customer satisfaction since the events have been implemented. In comparison to events with alcohol, it was also more cost effective.

The feedback was fantastic. Students wanted the events to last longer; they wanted us to carry on throughout the year and for us to align with the Students’ Union so we did everything together. Offering an alternative will not necessarily resolve flat disputes and student conflicts – but it will ensure everyone is catered for.  

Einita Sohal manages four Unite Students properties, home to 2,429 students in Birmingham. For more information visit: 

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