Smothering couch burning's embers

A burning couch in North Dunedin. Photo: ODT files
A burning couch in North Dunedin. Photo: ODT files
Certain associations are made and they stick, whether fair or not.

One of those is between University of Otago students and couch burning. The practice became an unfortunate tradition, even an expectation.

Not surprisingly, university authorities and the Fire Service were unimpressed. They would like the fires doused for good. The blazes can be exceedingly dangerous in themselves, and fire authorities are also worried firefighters diverted to North Dunedin could delay fighting fires elsewhere.

The university knows such fires can be a media magnet, painting a picture of disorder, ill-discipline and drunkenness - just what it does not want. What parents would want to see their darlings going to a place identified in part by unedifying pictures across the news?

In this context, news the flames of couch burning are dying out is welcome. The university has released statistics showing it recorded 11 fires in the first three months of this year, a 65% drop on the previous low for the period. University proctor Dave Scott and the Fire Service say the message is finally getting though that lighting fires is dangerous and will not be tolerated.

Students are being suspended for anti-social behaviour and this is a case where deterrence has had an effect. Additionally, as Fire Service East Coast area commander Laurence Voight said, two serious incidents last year, a balcony collapse at a surprise Six60 concert and a Castle St fire that left a student with serious injuries have, made an impact.

It is, indeed, possible to have fun without destructive, dangerous or antisocial behaviour.

Grumbles about killjoy university authorities might also be subsiding. The university knows the camaraderie of its colleges and then its North Dunedin flatting precinct are a powerful draw for out-of-town students. The experience is far beyond anything that can be offered elsewhere.

That fellowship for many includes parties and heavy-duty socialising. It creates long-term positive memories and spurs powerful word-of-mouth marketing. The challenge remains, nevertheless, to allow scope for good times while eliminating bad, hazardous and destructive behaviour.

Alcohol excess is often a culprit. Again, maintaining the balance between freedom and fun and safety is not easy. Sometimes Otago seems to be synonymous with heavy drinking, even if many students do not overindulge. But this country's culture is soaked in liquor from secondary school age on. The ugly drunken damage that emerged last week at a Victoria University student residence is an example of how widespread this is. Intoxication and its repugnant aftermath is common across many campuses - not just Otago as the stereotype would have it.

Otago, on occasions, has also suffered when non-students have invaded the student area and caused trouble. The latest move to protect students in central and north Dunedin is the proposed introduction of CCTV cameras. Students, at least according to an Otago Students Association poll, seem split over the matter.

That is understandable. On the one hand, the cameras should improve safety, and there have been sexual assaults as well as thieves taking advantage of lax student security.

But, even for those with nothing to hide, a certain degree of privacy in residential areas is part of fundamental civil liberties. Such rights are easily lost and, in the wrong circumstances, legitimate dissent or harmless but disapproved behaviour could be curtailed. Could suppression be such that under the ever watchful eye of big brother and big sister spontaneity and frivolity are eliminated?

The key for the introduction of CCTV will be only to allow specific and relatively narrow uses. Safeguards and checks must be in place to prevent abuse.

CCTV, no doubt, will be another means to smother any possible resurgence, any remaining embers, of couch fires.


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