Otago's extreme student initiations

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 20 October 2023

Group bonding, good fun, upholding years of student culture – or toxic, dangerous and humiliating? Otago University's flat initiations are in the spotlight as the rituals get more extreme. 

University of Otago students celebrating St Patrick's Day

 University of Otago students celebrating St Patrick's Day. Photo: Supplied

Holding eels up like a trophy prize, eating the feet off a live duck, passing out in a wheelie bin while you're smoking.

These are some of the crazy stories about Otago University flat initiations that've been hitting the headlines recently.

In today's podcast, The Detail talks to Fox Meyer, editor of the student-run magazine Critic Te Ārohi, and also to the director of the classic Otago student film 'Scarfies' Rob Sarkies about what these initiations are all about and what could be done to reduce the harm.

"There's a few different types of them but the ones we're really focusing on here is flat initiations," Meyer says.

"Because Otago is such a great student community, you have this student neighbourhood that you don't really have anywhere else in the country, you have these flats that are passed down from friend group to friend group, they have names on them, they have a lot of clout surrounding them.

"Once you do sign the flat [lease] you get initiated, so it's typically first years being initiated by second years before they're able to really consider themselves fully deserving of the clout of that flat." 

The first years have to perform certain tasks and challenges – mostly involving copious amounts of alcohol. 

"Why would you do this? We've talked to several students and the point they always without a doubt fall back on is that 'this is group bonding and it's meant to be good fun'," Meyer says.

"I do believe that if you are forced to walk this gauntlet with a group of people that you're going to be living with you're going to be pretty tightly bonded. I completely understand that. I just think that there's a line between a good time and a really dangerous time that you're just telling yourself is a good time."

Rob Sarkies was an Otago student – his film was a world that he knew – and says the University's social culture is iconic.

"You weren't just going there to learn your subject material, you were going there to be part of a culture and that culture becomes part of you.

"It's the isolation of Dunedin... the geography of where the University and the Polytech and the teacher's college are... it's its own world within a world, in a way quite separate from the rest of Dunedin."

He's still "disgusted" with what he's been reading about the current initiations.

Both Meyer and Sarkies point to the demise of student pubs leading to less controlled drinking.

"These student pubs, places like the old version of the Cook and the Gardies, were places where students could go. You'd have a good time together but it was a controlled environment. You're not going to get these sorts of events happening in those environments," Sarkies says.

"As soon as these pubs closed... all of those people, they're going to keep drinking, they're going to keep having fun, but they're doing it in their own flats and so, suddenly, you can't control it, and actually it becomes less valuable because there's less of a petri dish of culture because it's more just individual flats."

"Who's to say what the butterfly effects of that were, but if you have a public space to go to enjoy all these things you might not be doing it in your backyard," Meyer says.

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