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University Pubs: Absolutely Necessary or Outdated and Unneeded?

Written by Alex McMurray
Photo by Drew Farwell

University is stressful, and students will probably always need some way to wind down. Enter the University Pub, the most accessible place to destroy your brain after you just spent all day trying to educate it.

bluedogeyes: “For friendship! ”

Perhaps I’ve shown my cards. I have to admit, I’m a little biased. Alcohol is the most harmful drug of all, both in terms of harm to the user and those around them, according to this often-referenced study. Plus, the post-secondary culture around it almost ruined my life forever. So, my bias isn’t entirely subjective or completely unfounded.

Are University pubs a problem? Or, are they a much-needed social space in any center of learning? Either way, are they a sustainable business model in 2019 and beyond? I’ve done some research into student opinions, positions of specific pubs, and some editorial writing on the subject to take a deeper look at this issue. You get to come along for the ride as I examine what I hope will be a cultural shift in the next generation of students!

The CBC recently ran an article about Waterloo University’s Pub having to close, and this got us at SLN wondering if others would soon follow. Despite my bias, I can’t deny that a pub isn’t just a place to buy the one extremely harmful drug that society doesn’t seem to take much issue with. Plus, the study referenced above has some major limitations, as discussed in this Vox article.

I have to admit that pubs can be a place for all kinds of social interaction. For many students, alcohol availability doesn’t even matter. So, if they were to disappear, students might miss them for many different reasons. Let’s look at what some students have to say about their local pubs…

What Students Have to Say

I spoke to some students at Western, McMaster, and York University about their local pubs. Here’s some of what they had to say:

“We have a pub on main campus called the Spoke where you can go get delicious bagels, fried food or alcohol. People are always there, some drinking, some doing school work and drinking lattes. It’s definitely not somewhere to go if you have a lot of work to do but it’s nice to be in a socially comfortable and relaxed environment instead of in the library and stressed all the time. I’ve never gotten really drunk there but they host events and some of my friends go to karaoke or whatever and drink”.  – Kate, 3rd-Year Student @ Western University

“We have a pub on campus called the Phoenix, and it’s pretty cool. I’ve been a couple times, mostly to celebrate like a birthday with someone in my program. I probably wouldn’t go there myself on a Friday or something with friends but they have good nachos. I probably wouldn’t miss it too much, it’s usually too expensive. We have a club on campus though, that’s much more enjoyed by the student body I would say… because there is an all ages night like once a month or something where anyone can go. Also, there are more activities at the club, sometimes the pub can be boring. Still, I know some grad students go to the pub all the time and they would hate to see it go”.  -Toby, 2nd-Year Student @ McMaster University

“Students certainly liked The Ab. It was the chill out safe space that you could talk about whatever you wanted. Everyone was welcome. People went there to see their friends, do work hungover during the day, and do work tipsy at night. I think the alcohol culture on campus is relatively under control. I’m not going to say that the area outside of campus was safe, but when you were intoxicated on campus, I didn’t need to worry about much. The manager once mentioned that “The Ab was a bar to learn about how to act at bars,” so the rules of behaving were a bit more open ended than other public bars, and students loved it for that” – Rosie, Former York University Student & Employee @ The Ab

In general, these pubs seem to be social spots first and alcohol providers last. Perhaps the profit issue is being viewed in the wrong way. Instead of asking how these places could change to make a profit, maybe we should be asking why they have to make a profit in the first place? Students pay incredible sums of money to attend universities, and granted, most universities offer a lot of free services to their students. Still, having a location to relax, engage in activities with fellow students, order pub-style food and yes, drink alcohol, might be another way to give students the resources that they need to succeed. If these pubs were owned by the universities themselves, they could be a source of income if the profit problem was solved, sure. However, they could operate “at a loss” if their existence was seen as a gain for students first. We pay so, so much to go to university. I think that these institutions could afford to pay whatever difference exists between the upkeep of such a place and the money earned from food and drinks.

What Pubs have to Say

I managed to get a response from The Spoke at The University of Western Ontario and Oliver’s Pub and Patio at Carlton. They also support the idea that it isn’t so much the alcohol as it is the social space that students value.

The Spoke

“Thank you for reaching out, that is sad news about Waterloo’s pub… Here at The Spoke we are experiencing the trend of decreased alcohol sales, however, our overall sales are up year over year with the success of our quick service food options”. – Ben Lollar, Site Manager, University Students’ Council for The Spoke & Rim Tavern.

Oliver’s Pub & Patio

“There is a bit of a changing landscape and on some campuses that has lead to closures. Many student unions allow some of their operations to exist in an environment where profit is not the main concern, if students look at these operations as a necessary part of student life and are comfortable subsidizing that reality then many operations will be fine… I can’t speak to their specific situation in Waterloo, but as far as student life goes, the closure is unfortunate. Students have lost a pub that many of them feel an emotional attachment to. A place that helped shape their undergraduate experience, etc. At the same time, I am not sure this all means there is a trend away from campus pubs, however the industry certainly has changed as a whole over the years.

All that said, we’re aware that the culture of drinking at universities and colleges has changed dramatically since my day, and as a result we are always looking at adapting our operation to suit the changing desires of students. The days of throwing a weekly club night that is packed week over week are behind us. However, alternative programming such as trivia, open stages, variety acts, karaoke, themed parties and a vast array of club events have helped us rejuvenate days that may have sagged, and in some cases provided new and interesting events for students to attend”. – Blake Brooks, Oliver’s Pub & Patio Manager

My Hopes for the Future

We’ve arrived at the editorial section of the article! Welcome to hating on alcohol all the time, no matter what… just kidding. Alcohol isn’t pure evil. I drink sometimes, and sometimes, I even enjoy it! In all seriousness, though, I had a bit of awakening after university party culture left me a depressed alcoholic. I won’t get too deep into that here. I’m hoping to have a larger work about that published by SLN, but I’m sure the story is familiar to way too many of you:

  • New to uni, wanted to be popular
  • Peer pressured into lots of drinking
  • Drank all the time, spent too much, made poor choices
  • Parties dried up, but I didn’t
  • Alcohol was deeply ingrained in my lifestyle and habits before I noticed
  • Very difficult recovery

Now, you may be thinking, “I know some people like that, but that’s not me. I’m in full control of my drinking!” You might even be completely correct. However, alcohol culture is mostly destructive. I say that with not only the evidence of my own life but also with hundreds of studies and personal accounts to back me up. Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not some kind of studious straight A student that doesn’t understand why people party. Life is tough, and being a student can be one of the most stressful times of your life. We all deserve to celebrate our wins. I get it. Still, I’m not sure how or why alcohol became the dominant way to do that, and I’m hoping that we as a society will move away from it as time goes on.

What’s so wrong with alcohol culture? Well, just ask the teenager violently throwing up his parents’ liquor. Ask the girl who doesn’t really understand how she ended up in some guy’s apartment. Ask the person that woke up and can’t remember most of what they did the previous evening. I went to a lot of parties during my time at university, and I saw these issues, and more, occurring almost every night:

  • People destroying things for fun.
  • Women (and some men) being preyed on for sexual companionship. These people weren’t in any state to truly judge whether or not they wanted to engage in these activities.
  • People being pressured into having more alcohol, despite trying to argue that they were worried about how they might feel if they added more to their already addled brain.
  • Peer pressure towards trying other drugs for the first time. Those pressured weren’t in any state to truly judge whether or not they wanted to take that step.
  • People talking at each other, not with each other. Just sort of yelling over the noise without really communicating in any meaningful way.

I could go on. In short, I think that it’s very problematic that our society thinks that the best way to celebrate is to poison ourselves, become the worst versions of ourselves, and actively choose to put ourselves in a state of mind that makes bad decisions much more likely to happen. Realistically, alcohol consumption is mostly about wanting some sort of social lubricant. Humans have probably always had some difficulty talking to strangers and making new friends. This seems especially problematic in 2019, though, as technology is making social awkwardness the norm.

Alcohol can help you to have the confidence to dance, the words to talk to that cute person from your class, and so on. However, that’s like using an energy drink to stay awake in class. You can use a drug to put a bandaid over the problem. However, the real problem is the extremely busy schedule that keeps you from adequate rest. Similarly, drinking to escape your social awkwardness doesn’t make you a more confident person. If anything, constantly leaning on that crutch will keep you from becoming more confident and social!

Moving Forward

As UBC’s pub celebrates its 50th year, clearly, University pubs aren’t all bad. Human beings crave connection. We need places to hang out, get to know new people, and feel comfortable in our skin around others. I understand, at least to some extent, why pubs became that place in the past. Furthermore, I believe that human beings should be free to make their own choices. Free as long as they aren’t harming others, of course. I’ve been to parties where everyone drank without issue. No one took advantage of anyone, broke anything, drove home drunk, or whatever else. It can happen. However, like I said, automatically feeling the need for a poisonous substance that breeds bad judgment just to celebrate an accomplishment or meet new people is problematic in a way that should be obvious.

So, what’s the solution? I’m not sure. Society seems to slowly be moving towards accepting Cannabis as good ways to unwind or socialize. In my opinion, the first step is to acknowledge, as a society, that alcohol is a drug. It’s a very risky one, more importantly. It annoys me to no end to hear someone who drinks alcohol all night and coffee every morning just to be able to function call someone who smokes Cannabis an addict or a druggy.

For some reason, we don’t see things like Alcohol or Coffee as drugs, despite the fact that they are. So, by accepting that alcohol is a drug, we can then judge other drugs fairly in comparison. It’s not a question of whether or not weed is bad for you. It’s a question of which is a worse way to unwind, weed or alcohol? I can confidently say that there is no reputable evidence that weed is worse for individuals or society than alcohol is.

Beyond that, I think we as a society need to understand that addiction and depression are often symptoms of isolation. People like me become alcoholics because they crave connection. Unfortunately, the people and institutions around us offer alcohol-laced evenings as the dominant method of finding and making connections with others. In summary, I don’t think that university pubs should close. I think that they should shift focus, however, to providing a social space for students of all kinds. A space for students to exist, whether or not those students want to get drunk while they hang out. We all need a place to relax, chill with our friends, and meet potential new friends. I hope that the next generation of students will understand that they don’t need to break their bank accounts, destroy their bodies, and become the least wise versions of themselves to accomplish this. Hopefully, university pubs will follow suit. I hope for a focus on the space given to students over how much alcohol they sell.

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*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.