Ed Farmer is the fourth student known to have died as a result of university initiations in the last 15 years. In December 2016, Ed, 20, was on a night out with Newcastle University’s Agriculture Society, which has a reputation for organising alcohol-fuelled social events. He suffered a cardiac arrest which led to brain damage and he died two days later. His death follows that of Gavin Britton in 2006 who died after a golf club initiation at Exeter University, Tom Ward at Hull University and Alex Doji at Staffordshire University who died in 2005 and 2003 respectively after rugby initiations.
Countless other students never return to their sport or society after witnessing or being subjected to the degrading and derogatory treatment of members at initiations. Still more never even join a team or society, or tiptoe around the outskirts of it and never attend a social event, for fear of being drawn into the humiliating ritual. When societies and sports teams are touted as providing some of the most valuable experiences at university, how are they still getting away with these practices?
The main purpose of initiation ceremonies seems to be to cause maximum embarrassment to newcomers, not just by getting them drunk, but by dressing them up and forcing them to take part in challenges. This year, Exeter University’s cheerleading team made members dress up according to how long they had been in the team: those joining for the first time had to dress as babies, those in their second year as schoolgirls, and third years as OAPs. Before going into the bar, newcomers were made to line up in order of age. The team’s social secretaries shouted orders, asserting their authority over the humiliating ritual. Amy*, a third-year student joining the society for the first time, says: “the way I saw it was as shaming the oldest people for not joining earlier”.
Other students have reported horror stories of being made to eat a combination of eggs and cat food, being drenched in urine and vomit, and even having to pull a dead rat from a bucket with their teeth or kiss a dead fish. After the event, committee members will claim everything was optional, but the pressured environment and not wanting to be seen as weak means many students feel they have no option but to join in.
The failure of universities to enforce bans on initiations means little has changed in practice. One common tactic is making first-year students sit on the floor, whilst older students sit on chairs around them – effectively barricading them in. They are then ordered to drink, tell embarrassing stories and complete challenges –all in the name of team-building. For Amy, the embarrassment began when she was paraded into the bar: “everyone stared at us as we walked in like there was this shame of being [a newcomer]”. Once in the bar, they were ordered to buy multiple drinks while the social secretaries found ways to embarrass them. “They started judging who was the best dressed and those who were the worst dressed had to eat a lemon,” she says. This was just the beginning, but Amy left shortly afterwards: “I wasn’t enjoying the disrespectfulness or tastelessness of the social and I didn’t appreciate sitting on the floor and being treated like that”.
In banning initiations and thinking no more of it, universities are ridding themselves of any responsibility, but the responsibility is entirely theirs. It is their job to not just educate on the dangers, but enforce disciplinary action if rules are not followed. Ed Farmer’s father has called for students involved in university initiations to be expelled, and while this seems drastic, it is an appropriate punishment given the potential result of continuing the practice.
According to an investigation, The Rugby Football Union is worried that the culture of university rugby initiations is putting potential talent off from playing the sport. But it isn’t just ‘lad culture’ that’s to blame – many women’s sports societies also brag about the humiliating process members have to go through to earn a place on their team.
Some students talk about surviving initiations with almost a sense of pride as if it proves their worthiness to be in the society or team. This, of course, is the point. “It’s disgusting behaviour, this idea that people think they’re better than you, ordering you around with a complete lack of any sort of respect,” says Amy. “I felt like I was treated like an animal and they were just showing off.”
Universities can do all they like to warn against the dangers of excessive drinking and peer pressuring others into doing things they aren’t comfortable with, but they must be empowered to take assertive action. It will take more than warnings, which are so frequent they often go unnoticed by those they are targeted at, to end the toxic culture of initiations and make social events a safe and fun environment. Passing the buck to students, telling them to either not get involved or report the activity is not enough. This also ignores the risk of repercussions, including being outcast and removed from the society or team altogether.
Student unions need to train society and sports team committee members, placing the responsibility directly on their shoulders and threatening them with expulsion should initiations take place. These representatives also need to attend social events, not to act as the ‘fun police’ but to protect potentially vulnerable students and provide punishment for teams and societies who are found to have breached the rules.
In the wake of Ed Farmer’s death, Universities UK has set up a working group with researchers, student representatives, parents, university officials and sports societies to provide guidance for the sector on the culture of initiations. This must not become another empty promise to protect students with a list of recommendations that fail to take assertive action – if they want to be taken seriously by students and parents universities must proactively prevent initiations from taking place.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
- Becca McAuley studies MA Newspaper Journalism at City, University of London and can usually be found reading on the tube or chasing after cute dogs.