Divine Word University (DWU) is in Madang, on the northern coast of the Papua New Guinea (PNG) mainland. DWU is a Catholic university, with approximately three thousand students. Students are not allowed to drink on or off campus. Consuming alcohol is a category D offence under DWU’s 2019 student disciplinary policy, resulting in suspension and termination.
And yet drinking at DWU, as at other PNG universities and indeed many universities around the world, is commonplace. I interviewed 22 students at DWU to find out more. In this first blog in a series, I report on student views on the issue.
The interviewees were all senior students (years three and four). They were randomly selected in terms of gender, faculties and departments. I had no prior knowledge of which students drank or did not.
12 student interviewees were male and 10 were female. 16 of the 22 said they consume alcohol. Some consume alcohol on special occasions only, but others drink frequently.
According to the interviewees, many students consume alcohol every week. Binge drinking is common. Some students consume alcohol every weekend, sometimes for the entire weekend. Some students can binge drink for up to a week or until they have no money left.
Two participants shared their thoughts:
It might not be the same students that consume every weekend. But every weekend there is at least a group of students who are drinking. They could drink all night. Sometimes students go out to buy more alcohol and come back in.
From my experience, DWU students are known for drinking till daybreak and they can even drink until they don’t have any cash left. That’s what I see. Mostly male students, I don’t know about female.
The length of binge drinking episode depends on each student, varying from eight hours to a week. One male participant openly admitted to binge drinking, saying:
Yes. We do practice it. I can drink beer for continuous days like, maximum would be, 5–7 days.
Although both male and female students consume alcohol, gender makes a huge difference. The interviews made it clear that male students binge drink more than female students; male students drink more often than females, and are more likely to drink every weekend; and male students are more likely to drink in public.
Here is some of what the students told me:
Most of the boys in this school, most likely drink every weekend. They find a way, even when there’s an alcohol ban… they find a way. But, for the girls, it’s really hard to tell because they hide and drink in the dorm.
For the boys, I’ve seen that they can do this binge drinking. Like they can drink for days and they’d still go and look for alcohol to consume the next day. But I’ve never seen girls doing that. I think the limit for girls, how long they can consume alcohol, may be for 2 days or so.
Where are the students drinking? The students normally consume alcohol in their dorms. However, sometimes they drink off campus in relatives’ or friends’ residential areas, or in settlements, because they are afraid of being caught by the university.
The interviews revealed that students prefer drinks that help them become intoxicated quickly, and are cheap. They like drinks with a high alcohol percentage, either home-brewed (called ‘steam’ or ‘fire-wara’) or store-bought cheap liquors, ‘hard stuff’, such as Captain Moresby, Warrior and/or Coffee Punch. These are affordable, have a high alcohol content, and are marketed to young people. Students rarely consume beer because it is too expensive, and because it has a lower alcohol content. Participants were open about their choices and the reasons for them:
Steam, ‘fire wara’. Well, that’s when they have no money and most of the time, we don’t have money…
So for the boys I’ve seen that if they drink particular hard stuff, and if the hard stuff are finished they go out to Gav Stoa to just get steam… it’s an easy buy out at Gav Stoa… it’s gonna make them go the next day or if they finish it within the hour then they can continue… it’s gonna take like 3–4 days for them drinking… From my own personal view I’ve seen boys drink that much. I’ve seen that most of the boys they just drink every weekend. Almost every weekend. They don’t just drink store bought alcohol, all they go for is steam and homebrew. I’ve asked them why they go for just steam and homebrew, they say that ‘this is 100% full alcohol’. So they can get 10 containers and drink. It’s normal to them.
In the next blog, I look at why students drink, how they pay for it, and the consequences of that drinking. In the third blog, I look at how they get away with it, and what students think of the ban on alcohol.
 These are types of home-brewed alcohol most commonly consumed by young people. In some cases they refer generally to home-brew alcohol, but in some instances steam refers to brewing alcohol using yeast, while fire-wara or ‘yawa’ refers to mixing fermented fruits to make alcohol.
 This is an area outside of the university, near the main entrance. It is an informal market area near a settlement where people from that settlement sell garden food, cooked food, some store-bought goods, and cheap alcohol. Students enter the settlement to look for alcohol, or drugs like marijuana.
This is the first blog in a series on #Student drinking in PNG.
Correction 26 July 2021: An earlier version stated incorrectly that DWU was the only university in PNG to ban alcohol.
To simply educate and punish will never solve the problem. Students are clearly drinking as it’s the only way they know to combat trauma in their life. Alcohol and emotional well-being counselling is needed, and group work to provide support too. Address the emotional stressors, listen to the reasons cited by the students themselves
what a great article. Lots of helpful info. Thanks for sharing.
At long last, an article that draws attention to the long-standing problem of massive and life-threatening alcohol abuse by university students in PNG (not only DWU). The students’ interviews reveal a frightening picture. Students all over the world drink, and sometimes to excess, but what is described here is close to suicidal.
There is no trend, rather it is a cyclical phenomenon. In election years, like 2012 and 2017, “steam” production goes up, and students consume more. If nothing is done, in election year 2022 it will be the same again.
As Vice-Chancellor, I found it impossible to reason with colleagues about how to effectively address this issue. It is clear that bans, punishments and repression are totally ineffective, yet this is the only approach they are willing to consider. This type of behaviour is accepted or at least tolerated in the communities where students hail from. The misbehaving students, often have a history of abuse before they come to university.
It is probably time now to try something else, and, for example, start educating students about the dangers to their health, long-term of consuming steam and binge-drinking in general. It would also be time to get serious about academic quality and assessment, because a student who opts to be drunk for weeks should never be able to combine that with serious studies.
Well said Albert, I agree with your comments on the strategies to address this global issue. As a public health practitioner, I agree that a combination of both punitive and health education strategies provides ideal options for addressing this issue. Yes, policies such as zero tolerance to alcohol are good to regulate individuals’ behavior. At the same time, providing adequate information about the long term effects of drinking will shape their knowledge and regulate their behavior in the long term. A very good research for university administrators to consider.
Congratulation Lorelle. Wonderful achievement.
It is so disappointing to ready this because (1) The way these students start their lives is not promising. They will one day be important decision makers of the country and as such being a responsible drinker would make sense (at least limit the amounts and time taken as young adults). (2) As a parent, very disappointing as we parents work very hard to make sure they have a future and yet they waste those hard earned money on rubbish. I am looking forward to seeing a bit of what they want in life after going through University.
It is disappointing, but I would like to highlight that not all students do this. Some drink for relaxation purposes, which I will elaborate on in my second article. But yes, the way some students drink is concerning, and I hope studies like this will shed some light on the current drinking trends in universities, and get universities to address it appropriately. Thanks for the comment!
Thanks for your feedback. Look forward to the next article.
So the blame should be on all the Dorm Deans
Indeed a good combination of punitive measures and health education are probably the way to go. There is no point in engaging in a blame game.
Before that a more effective approach can be implemented, however, the exclusive focus on punitive measures, which turn out to be completely ineffective, must be reconsidered. This seems yet one bridge too far…