‘When I came to university, that’s when the real shift came’: alcohol and belonging in English higher education

Laura Fenton, Hannah Fairbrother, Victoria Whitaker, Madeleine Henney, Abigail Stevely, John Holmes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


While young people’s alcohol consumption has fallen sharply in the United Kingdom and other high-income countries, universities remain places where heavy drinking is routine and normative. Drawing on interviews with undergraduate students, this article explores how heavy drinking is part of how students negotiate a sense of belonging and form personal relationships. Theoretical work on belonging and relationality is used to make sense of students’ encounters with alcohol. Consistent with the decline in youth drinking, several interviewees had limited experience of heavy drinking prior to university, and some were not interested in taking it up. After describing how heavy drinking facilitates belonging in certain spaces of student life, we examine the strategies of non- and low-drinking students in navigating these spaces. Attending to their strategies suggests that becoming known as ‘social persons’ is key to negotiating belonging without drinking heavily. We conclude by considering how universities might better accommodate the desire for belonging for the increasingly large proportion of students with limited experience of or desire for alcohol by creating opportunities for students to form personal relationships in ways that do not involve alcohol or where alcohol is peripheral to the activity.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Youth Studies
Publication statusPublished - 20 Mar 2023


  • Young people
  • alcohol
  • belonging
  • friendship
  • universities


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