LAST week marked the beginning of university life for many young people across Scotland, as Freshers' Week took place.

Freshers’ Week is often associated with drinking and nightlife, with many incoming students experiencing alcohol in a social context for the first time.

Research by charity Drinkaware found that 20% of Scottish adults participate in binge-drinking, compared to a 16% average for the rest of the UK.

Drinkaware also reported that Scots aged between 16 and 24 and 35 and 44 were the most likely to report binge drinking in the previous week.

This has meant universities have had to change their approach to Freshers’ Week, with many re-branding to a name which moves away from the idea that the Freshers’ experience is all about drinking alcohol, such as Welcome Week.

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Yet the number of young people abstaining from alcohol is also on the rise, as the Scottish Health Survey 2021 estimated that 21% of Scots aged between 16 and 24 do not drink, compared to 17% in 2019.

This figure is higher than any other country in the UK, with the average number of young non-drinkers in the UK standing at 17.8% in 2022 (via Drinkaware).

Maisie McGuffie, a third year history student at the University of Edinburgh, spoke to The National about her experience at university and at Freshers’ Week as a non-drinker.

“When I came to university, I was petrified that I wouldn’t have any friends because I don’t drink alcohol.

“But I actually made a lot of friends during Freshers’ Week, and I didn’t have a sip of alcohol.”

Maisie attended a variety of events during her Freshers’ Week, including picnics, book shop crawls and hot chocolate mornings.

“There are events out there,” Maisie continued. “The issue is peer pressure, as people might feel pressured to drink.

“But I went to events and didn’t feel any pressure to drink – I knew it was my decision and I didn’t feel obliged.”

The vast majority of people have been welcoming of the fact that Maisie does not drink.

“When I’d go to flat parties, people would always have soft drinks in.

“There’s only ever been one person that made me uncomfortable about not drinking.

“They made me feel like I was a bit boring, but I actually think it makes me more interesting.”

Although the number of young non-drinkers is rising, those young people who do drink tend to be more likely to be high-risk drinkers.

Young Scots are more likely to be high-risk drinkers than in other parts of the UK.

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According to Drinkaware, 34% of high-risk drinkers in Scotland are aged between 18 and 34, compared to 26% across the UK.

Universities are therefore facing a challenge; how can they cater towards the traditional view of Freshers’ Week which focalises on alcohol, whilst at the same time making it attractive to non-drinkers and providing a safe space for those who feel uncomfortable around alcohol?

The University of Edinburgh, where Maisie is a student, told The National they have made many changes to the way they approach Freshers’ Week and binge-drinking culture at university.

Katie Hardwick, Vice-President Activities and Services at Edinburgh University Students’ Association, said: “We have so much diversity and range – if students want something, we will help them make it work.”

Over 180 events were on offer during Edinburgh’s Welcome Week, ranging from drag queen bingo and ABBA-themed club nights to tours of the city and visits to comedy venues and trips to IKEA.

Yet the events the university featured on its website tended to highlight club nights and events which included alcohol.

Katie Hardwick said the students’ association had tried to place more emphasis on events which did not include alcohol, and that students were able to filter through events on the website based on whether or not they included alcohol.

She also added that the week had been renamed Welcome Week to accommodate the “diversity” of students.

She said: “We have so many students from so many backgrounds, there are 15,000 new students this year alone.

“Students tell us what they want to see – that’s why we have such a range.”

Yet Maisie believes rebranding Freshers’ to ‘Welcome Week’ is not enough.

“I don’t know if that really works, especially when a lot of people are coming from England, where English universities still call it Freshers’ Week.

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“They’re calling it Welcome Week to make it sound more inclusive, but I don’t think it really makes a difference.

“There are better changes to make.”

Maisie also highlighted that the impact of Freshers’ can be long-lasting and affect students’ relationship with alcohol throughout their studies.

“If it was just once week and people just took part in binge-drinking once, then it’s not that bad.

“But it goes beyond Freshers’, it’s a continuous cycle.

“I think a lot of students are reliant on alcohol and it’s concerning, I see a lot of people in their final years who don’t get to drink or go out very often, and so when they do they go hard.”

Looking at what needs to happen, Maisie pointed towards promoting positive conversations around alcohol.

“I’ve always said that people who make comments about people who don’t drink are insecure about their own relationship with alcohol.

“I think university social media should be promoting events that take place during the day, and societies should have at least one daytime event during Welcome Week.

“It’s important that the locations societies choose are neutral and near campus.”

She emphasised how universities must continue to promote a safe culture around drinking alcohol.

The University of Glasgow already made positive steps by providing night buses to take students from Freshers’ events back to their accommodation.

As the number of non-drinkers is on the rise, Maisie spoke about how abstention from alcohol has saved her both time and money.

“If we go out and I don’t drink, I can get back late and still be up at eight-o-clock the next morning – I have an extra day, I think.”

She continued: “I also think you get a lot more perspective and that you understand people on a greater level.

“If you go out with someone and their perception changes once they’ve had alcohol, or conversations around alcohol brings them into a different light, I think you’re able to grasp the understanding of people quicker.”