The years spent at university are life-changing ones. Young people leave the comfort and confines of their hometown and learn much more than what’s on offer in the lecture theatre or lab.

From toga parties to flatting woes, the formative years spent in tertiary study are packed with risk-taking opportunities, but what happens when harmless partying tips over into harmful activity?

This question is being explored as a series of articles in the media expose wild behaviour at annual student law camps, and in turn, the general culture of the legal profession in New Zealand, following allegation that male Russell McVeagh employees engaged in sexual acts with young interns.

Jelly-wrestling, intense social pressure and naked drinking games were cited in complaints about the Society of Otago University Law Students (SOULS) camp in 2012, and this year’s camp was cancelled after the university withdrew its support for the event.

Last year, Victoria University declared alcohol bans on a number of its halls of residence, including one that was labelled a ‘feral zoo’ after partying students broke holes in walls and trashed furniture and fittings, resulting in an alcohol ban.

A balancing act

Does a university have a duty to restrict or monitor the behaviour of its students?

Yes, but within reason, says Universities New Zealand (UNZ) executive director Chris Whelan, who believes much of a university’s ‘extracurricular’ content is all part of the educational experience.

“There have been numerous instances over the decade that have been brought to an end because they went too far, for example extreme drinking in halls of residence. It’s something that universities take very seriously – they want the tertiary experience to be fun, enjoyable and safe for students.”

Whelan says New Zealand universities have always had a code of conduct for student behaviour, and students agree to abide by this when they enrol.

“Different universities call these codes different things, but they’re generally similar: they’re about having respect for people and property, and not bringing the university into disrepute,” he explains.

But university life is by its nature exciting and new and often about young people venturing from their hometowns and tasting freedom, says Whelan.

“You’ve got young people away from home for the first time, and so universities have to balance their responsibility to allow them to live and enjoy this time of their lives, without causing harm to themselves or others,” he says.

Tactics could include formal warnings and, in more extreme cases, expulsion from the institution.

“It’s better to scare a first time offender straight than it is to expel or come down too hard on them, though certainly expelling students does happen but that’s at the extreme end of the spectrum,” he says.

“When it comes to student-run events such as the well-publicised law camps, university administrators will endeavour to work with the function organisers to ensure a code of conduct is adhered to.

“Administrators will typically talk to the function organisers and try to make sure there’s planning in place so things don’t get out of control. It is of course a balancing act, and universities have a lot of experience in working things through with their students.”

Brendan Mosely is the director of Campus Life, a student wellbeing and accommodation service provided by the University of Auckland. He describes the university’s student charter as a philosophical understanding between two parties, and like Whelan, he says it’s a balancing act.

“It is a reminder that people and property should be treated with respect, and that there are responsibilities that the university has towards its students and that students have towards the university and their fellow students,” he says.

“While it is possible that not all students read or refer to this, it is just asking for respectful and responsible behaviour and we would hope that the majority of student and staff would already act accordingly.”

Reading the fine print

Victoria University of Wellington Student Association (VUWSA) president Marlon Drake says that it’s unlikely all students read the code of conduct upon enrolment.

“Unfortunately for many students, the first time they are made aware of the student code of conduct is when they are being reprimanded by the university in relation to it. It’s like having an Apple ID account, a university has a whole bunch of policy which students sign up to, but it’s unlikely many would read it unless they had to,” he says.

VUWSA believes students need to feel like a valued part of the community.

“For many students, university is the first time they’re living independently. If we expect these students to act like adults, it is quite likely they will rise to the occasion, however it is more often than not students are left to their own devices and then told off when their actions reflect badly on the institution.

“That’s not a good model – students need to feel supported right throughout and have personal relationships with university and hall staff, so they feel they’re a part of a community which expects them to act responsibly,” says Drake.

“The ‘harmful situations’ that are reported on frequently are a very small number of the 20,000 student population at Victoria University. It’s the equivalent to asking whether all rugby events should be monitored more closely because a small group of people started a drunken brawl at the venue. We’re not saying those issues don’t need to be addressed, but it should be done at a more personal level rather than grouping young people together, and make being a ‘student’ something the rest of their community looks down on them for.

“Bringing students together is the best way to combat this. Not only do they have better support structures but they’re more likely to take responsibility for their actions because they don’t want to hurt or upset their mates.”

University of Canterbury Student Association (UCSA) president Josh Proctor says the student code of conduct is taken seriously at that university.

“Canterbury University has put a huge emphasis onto the student code of conduct this year, with a new revised student code of conduct pamphlet handed out to every new student when they got their student ID card,” he says.

“This has helped to encourage students to read the code of conduct and hopefully take it seriously.”

Proctor says the relationship between university administration and its student association is important.

“I would encourage universities to work alongside their students’ association with a collaborative approach. I think there is strength in working together around this issue, as both parties obviously don’t want to put their students in harmful situations.

“The reality is, students, like anyone else, make mistakes. Working in collaboration between the university and students’ association can help to minimise these mistakes.”

 

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