Breathalysers? We need better college bars

Elsa Maishman 27 March 2015

I’ll admit straight away that there are more pressing issues that merit attention; poverty, world peace, the patriarchy…

I do care about all of these problems, and they need solving. And yet, today I wasn’t infuriated by those issues, but by the news that a scheme was being launched by Cambridgeshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Sir Graham Bright. The idea is to hand out twenty breathalysers to security staff of pubs and clubs in Cambridge as part of a pilot scheme to deal with “excessive drinking”. The devices will be used by bouncers to turn away revellers who are, in their eyes, too intoxicated to enter the premises. Justifying the measure, Bright cited the tendency for people to “preload” on alcohol before going out, and implied that the breathalysers would discourage this.

Before we go any further, I think you mean “predrink” or “prink” Graham. I have never heard the word “preload” in my entire life.

Now, I accept that drunken and disorderly behaviour causes bouncers, taxi-drivers, A&E staff, police officers and street-cleaners a lot of unnecessary grief. These are hard-working people, and they shouldn’t have to clean up the vomit or the blood of a privileged Cambridge student who has had a ‘messy one’ after drinking far too much Basics Vodka. The consequences of excessive binge drinking are well known, and they need to be dealt with.

But giving out breathalysers to bouncers is not the best way to solve this problem.

It fails to deal with the root factor: predrinks often involve consuming very strong drinks very quickly in somebody’s room, rather than pacing yourself with lager or wine in a public place. Hence, they tend to get people dangerously drunk.

Unfortunately, predrinks are also the only way most of us can even consider having more than one drink on a night out without swiftly bankrupting ourselves.

Everybody knows how expensive it is to buy a drink in most Cambridge pubs and clubs. Pints generally cost between £3.50 and £4.50 – spirits and mixers are even more eye-wateringly expensive. Once you get into the nightclubs, the prices become even more obnoxious.

As a result, the majority of students predrink before hitting Cindies. Otherwise, most of us can only really afford one or two drinks on a night out. In case it’s been forgotten, students are relying on government loans and/or grants to fund our time here.

You can call me a degenerate, an alcoholic and a menace to civil society, but I would like to enjoy more than one or two drinks at least one night a week. I want to have a bit of fun as a break from the grind of a Cambridge degree.

If the breathalyser scheme had a well-publicised, standard limit, then it might be more effective. But this isn't the case, and the resulting ambiguity means the scheme won’t achieve anything. Students, none the wiser of the actual limit for entry, will still predrink to avoid the overdraft and drunken and disorderly behaviour will persist.

There is a much better solution: encouraging student friendly bars.

Of course, in theory these already exist in the form of college bars. In fact, a select few of these are pretty good, such as those of King’s, Clare and Newnham.

Yet the decentralised nature of the University of Cambridge means that these establishments are highly variable in price and in quality. Generally, I love my college (Magdalene), but our bar is shocking. The only beer on tap is San Miguel, and it’s around £2.70 a pint. What if I want a cider, or ale? Or a decent lager? I have to rely on a limited selection of bottled drinks, which are more expensive. There is no pool table, and it has taken a drawn-out battle between successive JCR presidents and the college authorities to even negotiate obtaining a television.

These issues sound small – but ultimately they hamper attempts to create a welcoming space for students. Without them, we are only more likely to opt for drinking supermarket booze in somebody’s room, where we can play our own music and choose from a wider choice of beverages.

This is just one example of many. I have friends from different colleges who have a wide array of complaints about their respective college bars, from drink prices to barmen who are trigger happy with fines. All of these problems push us away from the college bar and towards Sainsbury’s or Aldi. If we don’t have adequate and cheap student bars, of course we’re going to “preload” with supermarket booze before hitting Fez or Life.

So I suggest a much less puritan solution than breathalysers. Students and JCRs need to fight for proper college bars, with varied drinks and low prices, across the board. If this new CUSU building ever materialises, we could even demand a CUSU student union bar, similar to other universities. Instead of dealing with the symptoms of the problem by giving bouncers breathalysers, we would tackle the source of excessive drinking by offering students an affordable alternative that doesn’t involve consuming high-percentage beverages at a dangerously fast rate.

Hell, if my college bar was good enough I might even invite Graham and buy him a pint.