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March 12, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Wellington ♥ Students?

CHEAP RENT, CHEAP DRINK, CAMARADERIE—DUNEDIN IS RENOWNED AS A STUDENT TOWN. IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME SINCE WE SAW THE CHARRED REMAINS OF A COUCH ON KELBURN PARADE, BUT DOES THAT MAKE WELLINGTON ANY LESS OF A STUDENT-FRIENDLY CITY? SALIENT CHIEF FEATURE WRITER ELLE HUNT LOOKS AT HOW LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND GEOGRAPHY COMBINE TO CREATE CAMPUS CULTURE.

“I transferred to Vic because I didn’t want to drink away my education,” a second-year student, formerly of Otago University, told a Salient staffer in the law school common room last week.

Though it’s doubtful that she intended it as such, in the face of a lacklustre O Week (see page 24) and the rising cost of living here in Wellington, her explanation came across as a glowing assessment of life in Dunedin. Its reputation as a student town is the stuff of legends. It’s hard to imagine the potential loss of the Big Kumara inspiring outrage in Vic’s old boys, but the Cook and ‘Gardies’ are watering holes of such cultural importance that Marc Ellis and other bleak New Zealand celebrities stepped in to prevent their closure. Then there’s the street-wide keg parties, the cheap food and drink, rent for less than $150 (or even, it’s rumoured, $100) a week—it’s almost enough to offset the freezing winters.

“Dunedin is an incredible place to live as a student,” says Julia Hollingsworth, a Wellington local who gained her BA in Philosophy and Politics at Otago. “It’s wonderfully cheap—I think it may be one of the few places where you can reasonably live on $160 a week—and around one-fifth of the people who live there are students, so everyone’s balancing studying and partying.

“Basically, it’s fun, cheap, easy and super-casual.”

Meanwhile, students (including Hollingsworth, who is now studying towards a post-graduate diploma at Massey University) are struggling to make ends meet in Wellington. According to The Economist’s 2011 cost of living survey, New Zealand’s capital city ranks alongside London as the 17th most expensive place to live in in the world. This is most apparent in the rising cost of rent: those of us who paid around $150 per week when we started our degrees are now shelling out up to $190 for rooms of comparable size and insulation.

In fact, recent figures from the Department of Building and Housing put the average rent for a room in Kelburn at $187 per week—more than students can claim in living costs from StudyLink. And though the merits of Dunedin’s student (read: binge-drinking) culture are open to debate, it’s hard to argue with an extra $50-odd per week in pocket. So can Wellington be described as a student-friendly city?

“I suppose you’ve then got to work out what ‘student-friendly’ means,” says Ian McKinnon, who is both Deputy Mayor of Wellington and Chancellor of Victoria University. “Wellington values students. Whether you look at it in social or economic terms, the tertiary institutions and the people that make them up—namely, the students—are valued by and add value for the city.”

As McKinnon acknowledges, students’ contribution to the local economy is significant. Statistics New Zealand’s 2006 census of the Wellington region identified 10.3% of the population as being aged between 18 and 24, a rise of 0.5% from the preceding census in 2001. Given the increasing number of school-leavers pursuing higher education, and the reduced capacity of Canterbury University, it’s safe to assume this upward trend has continued. Moreover, Victoria University employs close to 2,000 people in the Wellington region. So how is the value that students contribute to the city being returned to them?

Well, not in discounted public transport. While buses are free for students and staff of Massey University in Palmerston North, tertiary students in Wellington aren’t eligible for even reduced fares, meaning a return trip to more or less any suburb costs the best part of $10. For most students, this poses just a minor irritation, for, as McKinnon points out, Wellington’s size means it’s possible to “be at the university and then at a coffee bar in the city within five minutes”, even on foot. Moreover, the issue of tertiary discounts will be up for discussion later in the year with the Greater Wellington Regional Council’s upcoming fare structure review.

Changes proposed under the Regional Council’s review of bus services, which is currently underway, are more significant. As part of its bid to optimise services, it is looking to cut the vast majority of routes serving Kelburn Parade, leaving students to leg it up Mount Street to get to class. As 46% of Vic students rely on public transport as their primary mode of commuting, both the University and VUWSA are in the process of making submissions on the review.

Greater Wellington Regional Councillor Daran Ponter is also interested to hear students’ perspectives. He explains that transport planners have worked on the assumption that five minutes’ walk is an acceptable distance to travel to the nearest bus stop—in this case, at the corner of The Terrace and Salamanca Road. “I’m really interested to see how students react to that, because a lot of Victoria University is more than five minutes’ walk from that bus stop,” he says. “If you were going to the music school, for example, I would have thought it would be a bit of a push.”

Public transport is not so much of an issue in Dunedin, where, Hollingsworth says, “living 15 minutes from campus is living far away.” She attributes Dunedin’s status as a student-friendly city to its cheapness and its compactness, neither of which are the achievements of the Dunedin City Council. In fact, according to Hollingsworth, students’ relationship with the University and the DCC is becoming increasingly fraught, with the Council looking to extend an inner-city liquor ban to the “student-ville” suburbs. “Dunedin has a long history of students versus the University, and students versus the DCC, and each side is just as distrustful of the other.”

The appointment of Harlene Hayne to Vice-Chancellor last year, Hollingsworth concedes, suggests of “possible, positive change in the air” in the tense relationship between students and the University. Critic (Otago’s answer to Salient) recently published a photoshoot of OUSA President Logan Edgar horsing around with Hayne—him in a suit, her in a varsity hoodie. Given the professional tone of our interview with him this issue (see page 26), it’s hard to imagine a similar spread showing VUWSA President Bridie Hood chewing the fat with Victoria’s Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh. (Pat, if you’re reading—we can make it happen. Call us.)

Hayne has been taking a hands-on approach to curbing students’ wild behaviour, taking to the front line of Orientation events last month to help remove alcohol. Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull acknowledges that keeping on top of such a large student body—he estimates that students form about a sixth of the city’s total population—is not without its challenges.

“There’s the odd problem that turns up… the couch burnings, and the somewhat over-exuberant street parties where there’s a bit of disorder and bad behaviour,” he says, referring to the infamous Hyde Street keg parties. “I think that’s a minority, though another sizeable minority are silly enough to stand around and watch.

“But they’re young,” he adds indulgently.

One way in which Cull tries to instill new students with a sense of belonging to Dunedin is by providing them with vouchers for cultural and recreational services within the city. This, he says, is intended “to bring them into the community right from day one, rather than have them hiding in a ghetto not knowing what the rest of the city is doing.

“It’s about giving them a sense of ownership while they’re here. As I said at the civic welcome this year, if you’re going to treat Dunedin like a sailor in a foreign port, then perhaps you want to think about finding somewhere else to live. I want them to feel like Dunedin is their home, and then they can start to think about treating it the way their home.”

That this is even a priority for Cull is indicative of a different mindset down south. Though Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown frequently reiterates the important contribution of students to the city, for most, their engagement with the Wellington City Council begins and ends with her traditional welcome at Civic Square during O Week. Even President Hood concedes that she has little to do with the WCC on a day-to-day basis, as she tends to prioritise issues that affect students on a national level. That said, she says she would be “quite keen to work a lot closer with the City Council” on similar initiatives to Cull’s welcome pack for first-years.

The high concentration of students (“some people have said to me that it’s the youngest demographic suburb in the world”), Cull says, means the DCC has a “duty of care” to oversee their goings-on: “You’ve got literally tens of thousands of young people, many of whom are acting out a bit because parental authority is a long way away.”

The DCC works closely with Otago University, the police, OUSA, youth groups and students themselves to organise events such as the upcoming Hyde Street keg party, which Cull acknowledges has “got out of control” in the past. “There’s been too many people, broken glass,” he says. “The fear is that someone’s going to die.”

More than 7,500 people (out of an invited 14,043) claim to be ‘attending’ the 24 March event on Facebook, and Cull is hopeful that it will be a great success, noting that OUSA has “done a wonderful job” in organising port-a-loos, barbeques, water stations and volunteers. “Ultimately, it’s up to the students, and particularly the residents of Hyde Street, to come up with a model that they can do year after year, where everyone has a great time.”

For better or worse, it’s difficult to picture such an event being held in Wellington. Indeed, last year, now-MAWSA president Ben Thorpe’s attempt to organise a Wellington equivalent to the Hyde Street keg party in Mount Cook was thwarted by the council and police.

Deputy Mayor McKinnon says students in Wellington “haven’t adopted some of the extreme behaviour of those at some of the other universities” because of the city’s “pepperpot” demography. “We all live together,” he says. “It’s not as though students’ only neighbours are other students. I think that acts as a bit of a check. You know what people are like—if they can get away with it, they’ll go a bit further, a bit further, and eventually the sofas get burnt.”

Cull agrees: “The intensity and concentration of students in Dunedin probably leads to issues that wouldn’t be evident in a place where they were scattered over the whole city.”

Another reason, continues McKinnon, is the city’s “vibrancy”. “This city, without any qualification, is the leader in staging events, and they’re all right on our doorstep,” he says. “There’s so much to do in Wellington, students don’t need to sit there in the middle of The Terrace and burn sofas.” (Which brings to mind Hollingsworth’s remark, “Dunedin people are good at creating their own fun.”)

In addition, a number of Victoria University students have set their sights on a career in the public sector, and fears of ruining their chances of employment in future make them think twice about any youthful indiscretions. “People that are going into that sort of career path, whether they’re lawyers, economists or arts graduates, are surrounded by their future career,” says McKinnon. “The public sector’s right here, and their studies are right here, so they’re conscious of that and they don’t want to completely undermine their futures.”

The difference in campus culture at the two universities suggests that Victoria is perceived as a training ground for the real world, and Otago, as an escape from it. “It’s kind of a little bit of everyone here,” says Hood. “Why else would you go to Dunedin, if not to party?” But there are advantages and disadvantages to both. For Vic students, the trade-off for a vibrant arts and entertainment scene, and the chance to pass oneself off as a young professional in the public service sector, is a high cost of living. The upshot of Otago students’ fight for their right to party is their sense of camaraderie with each other, and their relationship, however fraught, with their city council and university. It’s not that Wellington isn’t as much of a student town as Dunedin; rather, it just attracts a different kind of student.

VUWSA and the Greater Wellington Regional Council are holding a forum in SU 218 from noon this Tuesday to discuss the current Wellington Bus Review and the upcoming Wellington Fare Structure Review. Regional Councillors Daran Ponter and Paul Bruce will be in attendance to discuss the changes currently being proposed by the GRWC, which will have a dramatic impact on the bus services two all Victoria University campuses.

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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