Alcohol, transitions and the University 'Bubble'
: a qualitative case study

  • Jane Wright

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Summary. Drinking behaviour in the UK population continues to be of topical interest with ongoing references to a drinking culture consistent in the British media. This is despite an overall fall in drinking patterns across the UK reported by public health sources in recent years. ‘Heavy drinking’ in universities has been suggested as a normative social behaviour and there are a number of studies that describe this in large scale descriptive studies of patterns of drinking and trends in morbidity and mortality. However, longitudinal, qualitative case studies which explore the interpretations of drinking in the social context of a university across different courses are limited.

Design and methodology. This is a longitudinal, instrumental case study which followed a cohort of undergraduate students through their time at university with multiple data collection points across three years from 2012 to 2015. In depth interviews with a variety of stakeholders and other methods were triangulated to explore the nature of drinking behaviour over time at one university. Participants from a range of courses were recruited and individual and focus group interviews were conducted, recorded and transcribed. QSR NVivo software was used to collect, organise and code data and thematic analysis was utilised to explore the findings.

Key Findings:
* There is an enduring perception at the Case University that heavy drinking is an expected student behaviour. Participants felt ‘safe’ at the Case University to drink heavily because it was transient and they said they would not continue with that behaviour once they started work (the ‘bubble’ effect).
* For younger students, (18-24-year-olds), the motivation for drinking alcohol changed over three years from ‘having fun’ and ‘partying’ in the first year to ‘relieving stress’ and ‘relaxing’ in the third year.
* The Student Union (SU) body and some academic staff appeared complicit in the normalisation of drinking at the Case University.
* Some young people ‘pretended’ to drink in order to achieve a sense of belonging to their peer group.
* Non-drinkers felt uncomfortable in the SU bar and avoided that social space, reporting that there was particular pressure to drink in that environment.
Key Recommendations
* There needs to be a move towards changing the cultural expectations that heavy drinking is a key feature of student life at the Case University.
* A culture of inclusivity at the Case University is needed to accommodate those who choose not to drink or drink in moderation.
* Considerations of how the Case University promotes drinking in the setting and how risk is managed is important.
Date of Award2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
  • Buckinghamshire New University
SupervisorLauren Griffiths (Supervisor) & David Shaw (Supervisor)

Cite this