What USyd’s Draft Alcohol Policy doesn’t achieve

Not without its positive elements, the draft alcohol policy takes an inappropriate approach towards alcohol regulation

Photo of the USyd Quadrangle, and with a photo of half drunk

Throughout 2019, the University of Sydney (USyd) has been working on a draft update to its current Alcohol Policy. First created in 1992, and last updated ten years ago, the policy leaves much to be desired. Declaring an intent “to minimise alcohol-related harm to the individual [and to] property,” and to  “preserve the reputation of the University in the community,” it does not specify ways to achieve harm-minimisation, or passages to follow should someone breach the policy.

The draft released to the University community for consultation thus comes as a necessary change. Yet there are good reasons to mistrust the proposed changes. Despite espousing to better secure student safety, many of the details appear paternalistic in their restrictions of what adults can drink at university, and come without the support of much needed broader and more rigorous attempts to attack cultures of sexual assault. In prioritising alcohol consumption as a means to make campuses safer, policy discussions continue to err away from deeper sexual assault cultures.

The core of the draft recognises alcohol as creating risks in university-environments. This makes sense; even over the past four years, Australian universities and their residential colleges have been lambasted for their structural failings to prevent sexual violence in their premises. The 2017 AHRC National Report on Sexual Assault and Harassment surveyed over 30,000 students, and found that “a number of students described alcohol being used by the perpetrator to commit sexual assault or sexual harassment.” Moreover, “a deeply concerning picture emerged about the role of alcohol in college and university residences.”

On the face of it, the draft policy seems to make positive inroads into making campuses safer. Unlike the previous policy, a misconduct process is explicitly engaged should the alcohol policy be breached. It, for example, specifically prescribes disciplinary action for “any action intended to impede an individual’s right to choose not to consume alcohol.” The draft also aligns USyd policy with NSW criminal law, establishing that, “Intoxication will not be considered as a defense or as a mitigating factor in any disciplinary action against a student or staff member.” Moreover, the draft provides definitions for the specific obligations of members of staff, be it university staff, or bar managers and senior managers, regarding their responsibility for students’ welfare.

Beyond these initiatives, however, the efficacy of the draft in making campuses safer for students falls into significant doubt. For one, the foremost actionable policy resulting from the draft is a possibly paternalistic ban on the sale of more ‘dangerous’ forms of alcohol. It “laybacks”, “slammers”, “blasters”, “shots” or “bombs” ready to drink pre-mixed spirit products with more than 5 per cent alcohol, and mixed drinks with more than 30ml of spirits or liqueur. In addition, events may no longer provide more than one free drink to any student outside of a meal, which if enforced, would likely significantly impose upon clubs and societies that hold, for example, weekly subsidised drinks as a meeting place for their members. 

Honi spoke to End Rape On Campus (EROC) Australia co-director Nina Funnell regarding this element of the policy. While also welcoming some of the draft’s initiatives, Funnell posed questions for the core of the draft’s policies.

“It is important to realise that alcohol doesn’t rape people, people rape people,” Funnell said.

“If we want to prevent sexual violence, we must tackle the factors driving it: gender inequality, a need for proper consent training, and tackling the power and entitlement of those who perpetrate sexual violence.”

Funnell posited that the draft did not go far enough in its requirements for staff or student training in consent, or in requiring staff to be useful bystanders: training staff to be first-responders to sexual assault, and in how to interfere in moments of drink-spiking.

More broadly, while the University did implement a compulsory ‘Consent Matters Module’ for students to complete in 2017, it has been met with significant criticism over how effective its design is: while compulsory, the module can be opted-out-of; not being a face-to-face training, there is no way to guarantee active engagement with its content; and it is neither evidence based nor specific to Australian contexts.

Funnell stressed that in approaching alcohol-related sexual misconduct, or violence, blanket bans make no change to deeper cultural problems. The insufficiencies of the policy in its impact on deeper cultural reform are no more stark than in the absence of any policy pertaining towards residential colleges. While a University spokesperson explained that “we consulted closely with the residential colleges in developing the draft and invited all colleges to take up the policy in full,” the fact that colleges like St Pauls’ or St Johns’ do not legally exist on ‘university lands,’ and have distinct governance councils, mean that the alcohol policy has no influence over them.

While the University attempted to assuage Honi’s concerns by stressing that “all residential colleges and the University are signatories to the Liquor Accord, which governs the sale and consumption of alcohol on our lands,” existing research suggests such a stance is insufficient. In 2018, Funnell and 2016 USyd SRC Wom*n’s Officer and current PhD candidate Anna Hush authored the Red Zone Report into Australian residential colleges, detailing a long history of students suffering at colleges. Importantly, the report stresses that, whereas other reports like Elizabeth Broderick’s review of cultural change at St Pauls’ have an “overarching focus on alcohol and binge drinking culture, rather than rape culture or toxic masculinity,” we must remember that, “alcohol is not a cause of sexual assault, although it may often be a contributing factor, or a ‘tool,’ used by perpetrators.”

This year alone, despite St Pauls having espoused in its Cultural Reform Review to have largely removed hazing rituals from its halls, Honi reported that St Paul’s College Anzac Day hazing rituals still occurred, encouraging drinking-till-vomiting, and consuming spirits from a live squid.

“If you really want to address sexual assault, when you have students with pro-rape groups [like St Pauls’ College in 2009], you can have the best alcohol policy in the world but it won’t change the attitudes of problematic men,” Funnell said. “Cultural change must include reforming how individuals are educated and must target their leadership.”

It is positive that the draft makes attempts to fill in the dire inadequacies of the current policy, however at its core, it remains unable to move beyond the availability of alcohol as primary explanation for negative campus behaviours. Ultimately, the draft alcohol policy USyd is circulating makes no firm commitment to impose cultural reform regarding the place of alcohol in residential colleges, or broader universities.

The University told Honi that it was currently working on a “toolkit” to help students and staff implement the policy. How impactful a few workshops can be on ingrained patterns of male-privilege and alcohol-abuse, however, remains to be seen.