University, United States could learn from Scotland

For a student bar in Coffman to work, there would need to be a larger shift in society.

Freshers Week, which is like Orientation, New Student Weekend, Campus Kick-Off Days and Convocation combined into one week-long festival, with lectures on how to make the most of one’s studies to events put on by the university’s 180 societies (student groups), has just concluded at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland.

The first night of Freshers Week, I went to Teviot, pronounced T-V-it, the oldest purpose-built student union in the world. Coming from a home campus where the suggestion of adding a bar the union has had a mixed reception, I was quite surprised to discover that Teviot had not one, not two, not three, not four, but five bars. That’s right, a bar for every floor. And that’s just in one of the union buildings.

There are actually four different unions spread throughout the university’s six campuses, and each one of them has at least one bar (the University of Edinburgh, despite being founded in 1584, is located in a city founded in 600 A.D., so the university had to tuck itself into whatever unused nooks and crannies of the city it could find).

When Minnesota’s Parliamentary Debate Society argued whether Coffman Union should have a student bar, those in favor frequently cited the success of student pubs at British universities. However, I find this an unfair comparison, because it failed to take into account how the culture of Great Britain, which includes Scotland, differs from U.S. culture.

First-year university students, no matter what country they’re in, are going to experiment with alcohol. However, in Scotland, this experimentation is legal. The drinking age is 18. For many Scottish freshers, as U.S. first-years, the university gives them their first opportunity to control their living situations and have the freedom to drink whenever they please.

However, because they’re of legal drinking age, their drinking habits are regulated, and Scottish freshers seem to learn their limits much more quickly than U.S. first-years, who have to hide their drinking from authority figures who might be able to offer valuable guidance. In order to be admitted to the unions, Scottish students must show their matriculation card (similar to the U Card). Scottish students seem to go to pubs with the express purpose of bingeing much less than U.S. students do, in part because pubs are such a part of everyday life at the university.

After society meetings, or even tutorials (recitations), group members will go to the pub for a drink, and all they’ll have is one drink. When casual drinking during the week is so common, getting a buzz on the weekends, instead of getting drunk out of their minds, seems enough for most people.

Pubs aren’t just places to drink here; they’re places to congregate, where ordering a soft drink over alcohol is acceptable. A student bar in Coffman Union would have to mark those younger than 21 in a manner easily visible to all, which, instead of promoting a single campus community, could in fact make those students feel out of place in their own union. For a student bar in Coffman Union to work, there would need to be a larger shift in society to lower the drinking age to 18. I have to wonder about a society that allows smoking, voting, legal adulthood and dying for your country at age 18, yet thinks being taught responsible drinking habits needs to be postponed three years, while underage drinking is glorified in popular culture.

Another reason the University of Edinburgh’s student unions work, while a bar in Coffman Union would be more iffy, is Edinburgh has a very centralized student government; the Edinburgh University Student Association, which is kind of like the Minnesota Student Association, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, the Twin Cities Student Unions Board of Governors, the Recreation Center Advisory Board and the Student Senate combined into one super group.

All of the association’s operations are ultimately overseen by a board of four “sabbaticals” – a president and three vice presidents are encouraged to take a break from their studies to focus on representing and serving their fellow students. This means all student services – the planning of Freshers Week and Diary (Gopher Guide), the advice places, the running of the student unions and sports facilities, the licensing of student societies, the setting of prices in the student pubs and bookstores – all come under the jurisdiction of one body elected by and directly responsible to the students.

Whereas, at the University of Minnesota, a student bar in Coffman Union would require multiple levels of student government and University administrators to work together, at Edinburgh the student pubs are seamlessly integrated into the rest of campus, because the group running them is responsible for shaping the campus community as a whole.

If the University of Minnesota’s student organizations and administrators could share a vision of what they want the campus community to be and implement it in a way that doesn’t seem “hokey” to nonstudent government types, clearly daunting tasks, then a bar in Coffman Union could help make a campus into a neighborhood.

R.R.S. Stewart is a University student studying in Edinburgh, Scotland. She welcomes comments at [email protected]