Welcome back

In the wake of cruise-ship passengers crowding Dunedin streets comes the hubbub and display of an entirely different species of wild life: the university year is about to restart.

The influx of students is already evident in shops, bars and restaurants, and the second-hand furniture traders from which yet another year's batch of scarfie flats is furnished.

Once again the streets are alive with the sound of youthful excitement, bubbling with optimism, hungry for adventure.

The city is an altogether more vibrant place when, like the godwits, these scholars migrate south to continue their studies or begin a new chapter in their lives.

And as summer belatedly finds it feet, the sun shines and the silent symphony of eftpos transactions hits pre-semester high notes, even those curmudgeons who, in the dank winter months habitually cuss their grungy presence, allow themselves a wry smile and a sideways, almost affectionate word or two of welcome.

The University of Otago and the Otago Polytechnic, their student, teacher and administrative bodies, comprise a good-sized town - some estimates vary up towards 30,000 - and are integral to the character of the modern city of Dunedin: to its physical appearance, its economy, its social and cultural demeanour.

Too often they are regarded as an entity apart, and somehow outside the norms, behavioural and otherwise, to which other citizens either aspire or are required to adhere.

In as much as significant numbers of the student body are indeed "immigrants" who over a period of several years, perhaps more, come and go from the environs, this perception is understandable if not necessarily accurate.

But it is underscored when, every year, there are outbreaks of mass misbehaviour among this sector of the city's population.

High-jinks are understandable among such a large, excitable, sometimes immature, collection of youthful personalities, some of whom have slipped the leash of parental surveillance for the first time.

But if they have come south to learn, one of the first and most important lessons they must accede to is that life is not, and cannot be, all care and no responsibility.

It was therefore a timely reminder for those new arrivals, and perhaps a useful noticeboard item for those still in transit, to see printed in this newspaper the details of the punishments meted out to University of Otago students last year for a variety of transgressions.

More than 600 of their number were disciplined for criminal, disorderly or dishonesty offences.

The offending ranged from academic-related incidents - electronically altering exam results, falsifying documents, plagiarism and stealing other students' work - to social or public misdemeanours and crimes: assault, trespass, offensive behaviour wilful damage, couch-burning and so on.

Just under 500 of such cases were dealt with by university staff with others coming before the courts, according to a series of reports released by the university last Tuesday.

These showed there had been a significant increase in the numbers disciplined - up more than 60 to almost 140 - for disorderly behaviour over the previous year.

The reports suggested this was almost entirely due to the toga parade during last February's Orientation, and the Undie 500 weekend in September.

Three students were excluded from the university by vice-chancellor Prof Sir David Skegg for their behaviour during the parade and a further six for matters arising from the Undie 500.

Both events, and the negative media coverage they attracted - which travelled around the world - reflected poorly on the university, Dunedin's reputation as a centre of education excellence, and the wider city.

The university has made great strides in the past few years to address issues of student safety, intoxication and illegal or wantonly anti-social behaviour, not least through its Campus Watch group, but also in imposing serious penalties on those who break the university's own rules, or the law.

In turn, as much as the consequences of student misbehaviour - as, indeed, of any other kind - must be faced by the offending individuals, those at the other end of the town-and-gown equation, whose equilibrium is disturbed at the first hint of a student prank, would do well to reconsider their own response.

The "us-and-them" attitude towards the issues sometimes associated with having 20,000-odd hormonally charged young men and women descend on the city is neither constructive nor ultimately tenable.

The University of Otago and the Otago Polytechnic are very much at the beating heart of this city.

They are central to its future character and prosperity.

Their problems are the city's, and vice-versa.

But in saying as much, context is required: and that is, for most of the year, most students are responsible citizens who contribute in myriad ways to Dunedin life.

Many will go on doing so when they leave.

As such, their presence and all they bring to the city is roundly welcomed.