Background Unhealthy alcohol use amongst university students is a major public health concern. Although previous studies suggest a raised level of consumption amongst the UK student population there is little consistent information available about the pattern of alcohol consumption as they progress through university. The aim of the current research was to describe drinking patterns of UK full-time undergraduate students as they progress through their degree course. Method Data were collected over three years from 5895 undergraduate students who began their studies in either 2000 or 2001. Longitudinal data (i.e. Years 1–3) were available from 225 students. The remaining 5670 students all responded to at least one of the three surveys (Year 1 n = 2843; Year 2 n = 2219; Year 3 n = 1805). Results Students reported consuming significantly more units of alcohol per week at Year 1 than at Years 2 or 3 of their degree. Male students reported a higher consumption of units of alcohol than their female peers. When alcohol intake was classified using the Royal College of Physicians guidelines  there was no difference between male and females students in terms of the percentage exceeding recommended limits. Compared to those who were low level consumers students who reported drinking above low levels at Year 1 had at least 10 times the odds of continuing to consume above low levels at year 3. Students who reported higher levels of drinking were more likely to report that alcohol had a negative impact on their studies, finances and physical health. Consistent with the reduction in units over time students reported lower levels of negative impact during Year 3 when compared to Year 1. Conclusion The current findings suggest that student alcohol consumption declines over their undergraduate studies; however weekly levels of consumption at Year 3 remain high for a substantial number of students. The persistence of high levels of consumption in a large population of students suggests the need for effective preventative and treatment interventions for all year groups.