The notorious drinking culture among University of Otago students is gradually changing, due to an attitude change within the faculty and initiatives implemented on campus. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
The University of Otago has come a long way from its ''Get
over it'' attitude to students' alcohol consumption. Rosie
Manins discovers what has changed and how the university is
continuing to influence the student drinking culture in the
final part of our Booze Control: Stop and Think series.
Otago's barfy, scarfie days might be over.
The university's Dunedin campus, once known for its excessive
drinking culture, is becoming a safer place, those at its
Initiatives to raise awareness about dangerous drinking in
recent years have involved not only the faculty, but Campus
Watch, the Otago University Students' Association (OUSA), the
university magazine Critic, residential college staff,
and even students themselves.
Director of student services David Richardson cited a range
of initiatives aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm on
He said in 2009 the university eliminated alcohol advertising
and sponsorship from its campuses, and since February 2012
Vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne had personally met every
student who came to the attention of Campus Watch because
they ended up in a dangerous situation due to alcohol.
Over the past few years, the university had also written to
all students providing them a link to an online alcohol
assessment tool, which research showed had a harm-reduction
effect through simple participation, he said.
The university's student health services offered support and
guidance on alcohol issues, including health lifestyle
clinics and health education programmes, and residential
college and Campus Watch staff provided ''in the field''
support and guidance to students.
Mr Richardson said the university worked closely with the
OUSA to pursue initiatives to moderate alcohol consumption by
students, and in 2012 it established an Alcohol
Implementation Group including public health professionals.
He said Campus Watch ran a safety patrol service aimed at
reducing risk for students who found themselves separated
from their friends at night or who had too much to drink, and
the proctor's office promoted advice for students about
staying safe when drinking alcohol.
The university had regulations in place regarding alcohol
consumption, and residential colleges had their own internal
policies about how alcohol was managed on site, he said.
Prof Hayne said she was ''cautiously optimistic'' about
changes in the drinking culture.
She said there would be a formal evaluation later this year
of the effect of policies and programmes implemented by the
university in respect of alcohol, which would provide a
greater understanding of changes.
''There are several signs that we have made a dent in the
antisocial behaviour that commonly accompanies dangerous
drinking, but I suspect that we still have some way to go,''
Prof Hayne said changes had to be made to New Zealand's
endemic drinking behaviour, not just the student drinking
culture, and such change required the continued efforts of
society as a whole.
''At Otago, we are doing our part. As New Zealand's only
truly residential university, we see it as our responsibility
to help students develop a range of habits that will increase
their health and prosperity,'' she said.
''Research has clearly shown that dangerous drinking has
negative consequences not only for educational outcome, but
also for general health and psychological wellbeing. From
this perspective, helping students learn to drink responsibly
is very important to the university,'' Prof Hayne said.
Studies showed Campus Watch had a positive impact on students
and the wider North Dunedin community, by reducing hazardous
drinking and some alcohol-related harms, she said.
Prof Hayne said alcohol was not limited to university
students, but in Dunedin dangerous drinking was more visible
at the university because students congregated in a small
She said the university's attempts to curb dangerous drinking
had been met with considerable support from students, and the
OUSA put student safety ''first and foremost'' in its
planning of social events.
The university's biggest challenge was that the bulk of
students arrived with a history of dangerous alcohol
consumption, and the belief that drinking too much was the
only way to have fun and meet people.
''Our goal is to change these attitudes, and in doing so,
change the behaviour.''
Prof Hayne said changes to policies and practices in the
university's residential colleges had led to major changes in
the way first-year students treated alcohol, and this year
the university would develop initiatives to help students
transition into flats.
There was no ''magic bullet'' solution to the problem of
excessive alcohol consumption among students, but the key was
to be clear about expectations, provide support as necessary,
and have clear consequences for when things went wrong, she
''In the end, this slow, steady and consistent approach makes
students happier and healthier. At Otago we are in this for
the long run.''
Prof Kypros Kypri, of Otago's preventive and social medicine
department, said the university was in denial about student
drinking during the 1990s, when it banked on Dunedin's
reputation as a party town.
The ''Get over it'' campaign run by the university was
indicative of the mentality at the time, which changed when
Sir David Skegg became vice-chancellor, and when Prof Hayne
took over the role, he said.
''They completely modified the attitude of the university.
Instead of being insular and laying blame outside of the
university, they acknowledged they could be involved in
changing the unhealthy drinking culture among students,'' he
''The university has come out of its shell and started
becoming proactive in its environment, particularly by making
submissions on liquor licence applications and to the
Government on issues that are likely to affect alcohol
Prof Kypri, who divided his time between Otago and the
University of Newcastle in Australia, said he would consider
sending his children to a residential college in Dunedin,
''whereas 10 years ago there was no way I would want my kid
going to one''.
He said Campus Watch had struck the right balance between
security and student liaison, which had reduced the number of
adverse alcohol-related events around campus late at night
such as couch fires and sexual assault.
''Interestingly, it's also reduced drinking. The university
can be proud of itself for helping the reduction in hazardous
drinking and associated antisocial behaviour,'' he said.
''The important thing now is for the university to remain
active, in association with the city and with Government
about how alcohol is sold and promoted.''