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Drunk and disorderly

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.36, September 18, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd

There has always been a connection between university student activity and alcohol. The university Easter and winter tournaments always featured the “drinking horn” in which the universities of New Zealand would pit their skills the one against the other to establish who could down a glass of beer in record time. Social activity was usually centered on drinking.

But these events for students were good natured and greatly raucous affairs characterised by much cheering and so on. After 3-4 days of sports (and other activities such as the law moot) the students would head home agreeing that it was the best tournament they couldn’t remember!

The events of the past weekend saw an event called the Undie 500 take a group of Canterbury University students to Dunedin where their presence was a signal to University of Otago students (and no doubt various hangers-on) to indulge extravagantly in boozing, rioting, police-baiting, arson and anti-social behavior. Apart from that the weekend seems to have been a success!

What was more interesting was the commentary that accompanied all of this.

The University of Canterbury stood back a little noting that most of those arrested were from Otago. That’s all right then? They also quite reasonably wondered whether not holding the Undie 500 would simply lead to a rogue event as happened last year. I have little patience for the suggestion from Canterbury that perhaps a safe a fenced-off venue could be found for the event – why condone events that seem inevitably to end up like this wherever they might be held? But I did feel some empathy with the Dunedin suggestion that the Canterbury types could drive around Christchurch and then park in Cathedral Square for the partying.

This gets to the nub of the issue. Much of the Otago behavior comes about because the students are “away from home”. That is a key marketing appeal to the young of Otago as a university and of Dunedin as a university town. I have been told by a number of parents that their teenaged sons and daughters were “going down to Otago” to university – this inevitably followed by haw haw comments about letting their hair down etc etc.

It is what Otago and Dunedin have a reputation for among certain groups of young students. Where else in New Zealand can you drag your furniture out into the street and set fire to it? Where else in New Zealand can crowds of some hundreds riot and hurl bottles at the police and yet only some tens are arrested?

What if the events of the weekend had occurred in New Plymouth? There would have been a great collective gnashing of teeth. Are there enough police in our communities? What if it had occurred in Auckland? There would have been a call for a national response by the government – talkback sociologists would have mused at length on the effects of poverty and alienation. Possibly the army would have been placed on standby.

But what if it had occurred in Manurewa? Or Flaxmere? Or Whanganui? Well, we would have had a field-day then and every prejudice would have surfaced to both explain it and to identify solutions to it.

But it didn’t happen in any of those places – it happened in Dunedin. And those taking place were the sons and daughters of the well-heeled from all those other places. This collection of the youthful, rich, well-to-do, white middle-classes showed that when called on they can sink to appalling levels of behavior at least as low and possibly lower than those achieved anywhere else in New Zealand.

The recent report of the Law Commission Alcohol in our Lives: an issues paper on the reform of New Zealand’s liquor laws was a balanced and thorough investigation of the issues relating to alcohol in New Zealand. It identified clearly issues of youth abuse of alcohol and of student behavior. It’s extracts from the diary of an Otago University Year 2 student for orientation week makes for pretty astonishing reading. The case study on the 2009 Otago University Orientation Week (p.62) is sad reading for it shows the extent to which the resources of the police are deflected from serving the community to simply containing groups who cannot contain their booze.

Otago University is taking the flak on this issue and that is probably unbalanced and unfair – it also contributes some excellent research findings to the Law Commission’s work. And we would do well not to ignore the issues highlighted in Dunedin over the weekend – they are played out in different manifestations in different towns at different times. Dunedin cops it but all Mayors of urban areas would do well to reflect that there but for the grace…

What are schools and tertiary institutions to do about all this? Schools could take an absolutely uncompromising line on alcohol and school balls. In fact it is hard to believe that many school balls serve any more noble purpose than the Undie 500 –­ an overture to the main event. Tertiary institutions can use their disciplinary measures to punish students who bring institutions into disrepute – that would include most of the students in Castle St on Friday and Saturday nights regardless of whether their behaviour was so extreme as to attract the attention of the police.

The issue of alcohol and students is a significant one in the United States where a lot of the issue is associated with college sport. That is not the case in New Zealand although sport and alcohol is an issue. Ironically, at the same time as the Dunedin troubles, ex-All Black (and ex-Otago sports star) Byron Kelleher was arrested in France for driving his car while sufficiently drunk to be reportedly incapable of completing a breath test.

Otago University and Dunedin have well and truly had the focus of public scrutiny on them this weekend. But the rest of the country would be well-advised not to see the issue as belonging only to the deep Celtic south. Many of those students will return to their homes soon – could be to your house, or next door, or to your street, or certainly to your suburb or town. There’s food for thought.

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