In Depth

Is it last orders for university initiations?

Newcastle student Ed Farmer died from excessive alcohol consumption following ceremony, inquest hears

A first-year student died following an “initiation-style” bar crawl during which his group ordered at least 200 triple vodka and oranges, an inquest has heard.

Ed Farmer, 20, was found unconscious after a night out with Newcastle University’s Agricultural Society and was taken to hospital, where he died hours later. A post-mortem revealed that excess alcohol had caused a cardiac arrest, which led to brain damage and death.

Farmer was found to have five times the legal drink-drive limit of alcohol in his blood.

James Carr, who was chair of the society at the time, said the night out was held every year to welcome new arrivals. The event went ahead despite a ban by Newcastle University on “initiation-style” ceremonies.

First-year students “were expected to complete the initiation by having their heads shaved before crawling into a garage to drink vodka from a pig’s head”, reports The Independent.

During the bar crawl attended by Farmer, in December 2016, two rounds of at least 100 triple vodka and oranges were bought to be shared among 40 students.

“The purpose of the event was an initiation, to welcome everyone into the society, but there was no requirement to turn up. They would still be included,” Carr told the hearing.

Most universities and student unions have vetoed such ceremonies, yet they remain commonplace among university societies and sports clubs and are the “antithesis of safe space”, says GQ magazine.

Indeed, “the Rugby Football Union (RFU) is so concerned with dwindling participation numbers as a result of this culture, it has set up an educational working group in an attempt to influence the next generation of student players”, the magazine adds.

According to the RFU, such traditions are partly to blame for an estimated 10,000 school leavers recently quitting the game. An investigation by The Times last year revealed university rugby initiation challenges ranging from players having to fish dead rats out of buckets with their mouths to the application of chilli powder to sensitive body parts - and of course, excessive forced alcohol consumption.

Neverthless, some students find such ceremonies “a fun way to break the ice to make new friends”, says HuffPost.

“I don’t know whether you’d count dance society as a sport but the initiation was more fun than anything else,” University of Sheffield student Alice Preston-Jones told The Independent in 2014. “We got to know people really well and had a great time. I guess the pressure was to drink, which I didn’t mind but would have put me off if I didn’t like drinking. We could stop if we wanted and generally had a really good laugh.”

But as critics point out, Farmer’s death is not the first linked to these type of events. In 2006, Gavin Britton, an 18-year-old student at Exeter University, drank himself to death during a golf society initiation.

“The practice continues, though, and universities turn a blind eye because athletic pursuits are part of the sell,” says GQ. “It is the responsibility of the universities to end this and the scandal is all theirs if they do not.”

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