Students and hangers-on

The number of arrests in Dunedin and the "occupations" of those charged last Saturday night in the aftermath of a major Orientation concert at Forsyth Barr Stadium was illustrative of two or three home truths: first, that alcohol, high spirits and congregating youth can often result in trouble; second, that contrary to popular perception, the Dunedin student population does not have a monopoly on police time, nor on violent, offensive or obnoxious behaviour.

But just as the arrival back in town of the students at the beginning of the university term enlivens the city's streets during the day - particularly at the weekends when George St becomes a colourful, grungy boulevard of youth attitude and fashion - it also amplifies, stimulates and repopulates Dunedin's "nightlife", whether that be in concert crowds, city bars, clubs and pubs, or street and flat parties.

Social life engendered by 20,000-odd students is the biggest game in town and, unsurprisingly, since much time and energy is spent by the Fire Service and the police attending to potentially dangerous and incendiary events in North Dunedin, it is the student population with which mayhem is routinely associated.

This is not always entirely fair and there are indications it may be increasingly untrue.

Under former Vice-chancellor, Prof Sir David Skegg, significant progress was made to shift and redefine the popular notion of the scarfie booze culture associated with University of Otago students; and of Dunedin as the student party town. And there is every indication his successor Prof Harlene Hayne intends to underline and consolidate this trend with lower tolerance for either serious or repeat offenders.

Some degree of off-colour behaviour is inevitable: with such a high density of teenagers and young adults in North Dunedin, many of them fresh off the parental or school leash and still negotiating the limits of acceptable behavioural norms, there will be incidents.

Where those are clearly illegal, the police and the courts should intervene, as they would with any other person found breaking the law, creating a public nuisance or otherwise committing disorder offences.

It may be dawning on greater numbers of these young people that a conviction for a moment's stupidity on an alcohol-fuelled binge could cast a long and constraining shadow over their aspirations and their futures.

But for these students, setting out to forge for themselves a career - at significant financial cost - there is the additional disincentive to bad behaviour of the university's own sanctions, including the ultimate threat of expulsion.

The presence of significant numbers of non-students at student-affiliated, organised or dominated events threatens to undo much of the work done by the university, Campus Watch, the DCC, the police and firemen in heading off the sector's erstwhile boozy, boorish and sometimes mindless culture of excess.

It has long been the case that a proportion of the "trouble" associated with past student events - the Undie 500, for example which, in its final years, descended into riotous disturbances - has been caused by young people who were not students.

That trajectory appears to be on the increase. For example, last Saturday's 15 arrests, while comprising 11 people between the ages of 18 and 24, included just four students. The others were contractors, labourers, engineers, builders, shearers, a teacher and the unemployed. They hailed from places as far apart as Balclutha and Timaru.

Some of them may be friends or guests of students. Some may, in fact, be flatmates: the cheapest form of housing for a young apprentice builder, for example, is probably in the North Dunedin student sector.

Or they may simply be those attracted from other suburbs, or from further afield, to the city on weekends or nights when the student calendar promises some form of "action".

It may well be that Dunedin's university and polytechnic population with its reputation for hard partying increasingly acts as a magnet for any number of "hangers-on".

This adds a problematic dimension to continued efforts to dampen the anarchic ardour and drunken antics of a minority of students who seem to revel in spoiling events for a high-spirited but generally sensible and law-abiding majority.

 

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