"Often, we'll know that if we hadn't shown up, the student would have died. But nine times out of ten, we never hear from them again."
It's early on a Saturday night and I'm in the back seat of The University of Exeter's Campus Security van, listening to a couple of estate patrollers exchange horror stories about the many Captain Morgan casualties they've had to deal with over their years on the job. I'm here to accompany them on their night shift—the hours in which students traditionally try to break their blood-alcohol records—and for now we're just driving around the city, past the various blocks of student halls, waiting for headquarters to radio in the first incident of the evening.
The patrollers are tasked with looking out for the welfare of Exeter Uni's undergraduates, many of whom—I'm told—don't particularly want to be looked out for. One patroller, Gary White, describes the typical reception he and his colleagues receive from students on campus: "We arrive and they don't let us speak," he says. "We get abuse. These kids get brave after a few beers."
Students converting a large chunk of their student loans into hangovers is nothing new, nor is the backlash. Various studies have pointed out that university drinking culture isn't exactly ideal—that it can lead to increased stress and a higher risk of contracting sexually-transmitted infections, and also, you know, having to get your stomach pumped or throwing up on strangers. The British government has also launched campaigns to decrease binge drinking at universities, with one optimistic project in 2014 aiming to get otherwise shitfaced students excited about the idea of a European-style "cafe culture that runs into the evening."
A survey conducted by national student website The Tab put Exeter University at number 16 in a list of the UK's heaviest-drinking universities. A similar survey on hexjam.com placed it at number 14, adding that the average student there drinks 12.25 units of alcohol per week, or about five-and-a-half pints. Listening to the estate patrollers talk, that figure sounds a little tame.
The first call-out of the night, just before 10 PM, is a noise complaint about a party in a block of student halls. Walking through the entrance, the corridor smells like a 4/20 legalization rally. A guy spots us and barrels back into the kitchen. Another one of the partygoers is asked to step outside.
"You are aware this entire place stinks?" asks estate patroller Charlotte Mackie.
"Why did you bring me out, though? Why me?" asks the student. "I don't smell anything."
He is lying, or he has nose-blindness.
He starts hurling abuse at Mackie, who tries to calm him down. With no physical evidence of anyone smoking weed, she and her colleague give the students a caution.
In a later interview with the university's head of security, Allan Edgcumbe, I'm told the estate patrollers always try to give students the benefit of the doubt. "We're aware that these are educated people," Edgcumbe tells me, "not goons out to knock people's lights out."
However, students are less likely to return the same courtesy to the patrollers. Mackie, who graduated with a degree in English and History in 2005, says that students often assume the estate patrollers are "menial workers."
"They think we won't know what cannabis smells like," she says. "They assume, because we're security, that we're less intelligent."
That said, not everyone on campus is so blindly anti-security. Just like a militant anarchist with an ACAB neck tattoo might grudgingly value the police a little more once they've helped solve a burglary at his mom's house, students who security have helped give credit where it's due. Charlie Levell, 20, recently called estate patrol. "They helped me get rid of a drunk girl who'd been left outside my house," he says. "They're usually pretty understanding."
Leaving the block, we walk past a guy throwing up on the floor. His friend pats his shoulder meekly, his Saturday night presumably not going the way he'd wanted it to. "Maybe a bathroom would be better," estate patroller Paul Cook tells the friend. "Have him drink some water."
"Our students reflect what's happening in society," says Edgcumbe when I ask him about university drinking culture. "They're no better or worse than others."
During last year's Freshers Week his team took 741 calls, but he's sympathetic towards first year students arriving at university, most of whom have "probably been working very hard to get the grades" they needed to secure their place.
"They arrive and they get swept along with the euphoria. I think it's fantastic," he says. "I used to play rugby, I don't mind a few pints. But of course some students have a bit more than they're capable of holding."
There are 16 people on Edgcumbe's main team—those who work alternating day and night shifts—and three who only work nights. "I've got a great staff," he says, "their hearts are in the right place." He stresses that estate patrollers are "soft security," meaning they balance security with welfare.
At 12:40 PM we're given directions to our first drunk pick-up of the night. A girl had been walking home alone, before some other students had spotted her and taken her back to their house to wait for the estate patrollers. We arrive to find her curled up on a sofa, her hair matted into a kind of vomit-y dreadlock. For a while she struggles to remember her address, before we're eventually able to take her home, White and Cook supporting her between them.
"No one home," Cook mutters as we get in. He radios Vicky Laskey, one of the residence patrollers, who keep watch on much smaller areas of the student residences on foot and are students' first point of contact before estate patrollers are called in. Laskey arrives to make sure the girl is alright until her housemates return.
"At least they've got the Friends boxset," Laskey jokes.
Back inside the van, White tells me that the sight of a drunken student headed home alone is all too common. "None of their friends want to stay behind with them or have to take them home, so they let them wander off," he says. "A couple of years ago I found a girl passed out on the high street at half ten, all alone."
"Seven or eight years ago, we had a student die from choking on their own vomit; they'd collapsed walking home alone," says Mackie. "For a while after that, students made sure to walk home with friends… But time passes and students forget. Unfortunately, something has to happen to scare them, to make them act more carefully."
As the team's advanced paramedic, Mackie often deals with the more severe cases they're called out to. "Cider vomit is the worse," she says. "Port, red wine… vodka is OK."
Mackie says that even when she was a student there wasn't the same attitude to alcohol, calling university-drinking culture "perverse." I recount stories I've heard about society initiations, which are now banned officially by the university. Cook, who worked as security at an agricultural college before joining the team, has memories of students drinking out of pigs' heads.
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Over the course of the night the team responds to roughly 20 calls, ranging from a car that needs towing to complaints about a student house letting off fireworks. One call-out is due to a fire alarm going off; we arrive at the accommodation to find students shivering outside, glaring.
"They'll go on a night out in just a T-shirt, but if the fire alarm goes off we get blamed for making them wait," says Cook. In 2015, the team responded to 732 fire alarms across the campus.
Of course, over his 13 years with the team, Cook has had to deal with far more serious incidents on campus; he recounts breaking down a bathroom door, the force snapping the rope a student had been trying to hang themselves with. "Students see us as the big, bad wolves, shutting down parties," explains Edgcumbe. "But we're very much more than a security team."
Alan Taylor, tonight's duty supervisor, tells me there's a "pattern" of increased reports of self-harming and suicide attempts around exam time, which correlates with a number of studies investigating the link between exam stress, depression, and suicidal feelings. Taylor thinks these incidents have increased since the rise in tuition fees, citing the "added pressure" students are under.
Student Maria Bowles, 20, says that the patrollers "are not just the party-crashing killjoys people think they are." She describes being picked up after a severe accident in first year. "Estate patrol took me home, reassuring me and making me laugh when I felt close to having a breakdown," she says.
As I'm driven home at 4:30 AM, the image of the solitary girl being guided home by the patrol—her shoes slipping off her feet—flashes before me. Following similar cases, Mackie says the team "hardly ever get a thank you."
"They'll wake up the next morning and never even question how they got back home."
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