R.I.P. SCARFIE - Who is killing the dream?
– 3 News reporter and Dunedinite Dave Goosselink
“The University are [sic] just killing it, for them to buy out Gardies and just shut it down, the Gardies was a great place to learn how to go and have a social drink at 18. Just watching them kill that, and kill off The Bowler, just watching them try to clamp down on what is the essence of student life, they’ve got to be very, very careful. Because you can get a degree at any New Zealand university, there are very few specialist courses down there, and if they kill off that student culture and suddenly make it not as desirable to go down there, they’ll be kneecapping themselves.”
– Broadcaster and former Otago student Clarke Gayford
The Scarfie Dream, it seems, is dying. Perhaps it’s already dead. And who is the number-one suspect in this murder case? For many casual observers of Dunedin student life, it is the University of Otago. This school of thought suggests that, scarred by international media reports of drunken rioting and main street midday mayhem, the University has systematically been trying to extinguish the supposedly troublesome aspects of Dunedin student life.
The University has bought and shut down student bars, introduced a Code of Conduct that allows it to punish students for misbehaving in their private life, banned on-campus alcohol advertising and sponsorship, created in Campus Watch a team of elite humans that patrols North Dunedin streets 24/7, shut down the Cookathon, repeatedly opposed the Cook’s liquor license, and purchased a number of Castle Street flats which are to be sub-leased exclusively to international students.
When gathered and viewed as stages in the same battle, these actions make fairly compelling evidence for the case that the University has been executing a sinister plan. But the University may be far less Machiavellian than we would like to imagine. The reality is that Gardies and The Bowler had become unprofitable and offered themselves for sale. Could the University’s higher powers simply be snapping up the remnants of a lifestyle that long ago fell victim to other factors? Or are they truly trying to take down the very culture that their Get Over It advertising campaign once so proudly boasted of to the country?
The most recent and notable chapter in this saga is the University’s purchase of Gardies. Did the University overpay in its desperation to preclude the possibility of Gardies continuing to operate as a pub? Simon McConnon was a Dunedin student in the mid-1990s, and bought Gardies with friend Pete Innes-Jones in 2005, because he had “just had so many bloody good times there that I just wanted to make sure that students of the next generation would continue to have the chance to drink there.”
Upon taking the bar over, McConnon immediately observed changes in the student drinking culture that were unhealthy both for students and the bar’s tills. “The scene had definitely changed and it was a lot quieter. In the '90s people would be sober when they got there; they’d have a few drinks, they didn’t tend to get as pissed as they do these days. These days they’d drink a dozen or so beers at home, and say ‘Right, I’m drunk, let’s go out.’ We got to the stage a year ago where 8pm on a Friday night there’d be half a dozen people in the bar, come 9pm there’s 500.”
This pattern of heading out at later and later times was particularly damaging for Gardies, as its placement in a residential area meant that its liquor license only extended to 11pm on most nights. The owners spent “the best part of $12k in the last two years on getting our license extended” but met “so much resistance … that it didn’t happen, and we were told that it wouldn’t happen in the foreseeable future.” This failed attempt was the knockout blow for the pub’s profitability.
One party that resisted the extension of Gardies licensing hours was the University of Otago. Ostensibly, this was to protect the precious slumber hours of their post-graduates staying at Abbey College, a residence about twenty metres down the road. This sensitivity to late-night rackets in the area is a bit rich. The University purchased the Abbey College site in 2007, a time when Gardies was in full-swing and Castle Street was at the peak of its international notoriety as the rowdiest road in New Zealand.
With no positive changes on the horizon, McConnon and his business partners began to consider selling Gardies in mid-2009 and advertised a tender sale in early-2010. A number of valuations were done on the site. The well-circulated figure of $1.025m was close to the government valuation. A best-use valuation considered the site as clear and level, and “because it’s such a large area, which is unique in North Dunedin” this valuation was “a bit higher.”
The University successfully tendered $1.75m for the site. This bid closed the tender two weeks before its original April 14 deadline. McConnon says there were a couple of other “expressions of interest, not formal offers.” Blake Luff, a second-year PE student who was discussing an outrageous plan with Marc Ellis and his business partners to buy the pub, says they “were going to offer about $1.2m, and knew of two other developers offering about $1m.” McConnon insists that they “never received any formal offer, any formal interest from them at all.”
One must now ask: at $1.75m, did the University overpay? McConnon; “We had three valuations done on the place, and certainly what the University paid for the land area and everything else, they absolutely did not overpay. Not at all. I wish they did.”
Perhaps relative to certain valuations, the University did not overpay, but the fact is that they outbid any other interested party by at least $500 000. This imprudent premium could be seen as revealing noneconomic motives for the purchase. Dave Goosselink covered various stages of the saga for 3 News. He concedes that the University has a lack of space, but “found it quite interesting that that they came up with that much of a premium, while at the same time claiming that they’ve got no money to keep open their own departments.”
“They would have been worried that if they’d just given them market value, someone else would have come in and pipped them to it. I reckon that $1.75m was quite a premium and I suspect it was to ensure that it was off the market quickly.”
It is clear that the University was desperate to take control of the Gardies site. The need for space may have made the purchase almost compulsory, but the speed and size of the University's bid shows that its was motivated in part by the desire to ensure that the site will never again host an operational pub.
Reports on the motives of those on the University Council are mixed. OUSA President Harriet Geoghegan believes that most members are innocent of any hidden intentions. “In the case of Gardies, the University has been after it for years, but that has been because it needs the land. It is part of their strategic plan and the Campus Master Plan to purchase the land surrounding University because it is rapidly expanding.”
But there is some evidence of skulduggery on the University Council. A source revealed to Critic that a University Council member had a surprising response when asked if the closure of The Bowler was a shame: “Oh no, no, we’ve been pushing them hard for years, and we’ll just keep applying the pressure to The Cook and the Gardies,” they said. “If the Gardies ever comes up on the market we’ll snap it up in a heart
A year later, intent became reality. Such sentiments are not reflective of the entire University Council, but they do shed an unflattering light on the University’s opposition to the extension of Gardies’ licensing hours. Successful resistance to the bid for a later closing time ensured that the bar would not be able to operate for much longer. Gardies then came up on the market, and the University snapped it up in a heartbeat.
Accosting The Cook
The Captain Cook Tavern is arguably the last student pub still standing in Dunedin. At least, it is based on the excellent definition offered by Harriet Geoghegan: “a place where you can do telephones, drink crates, and play loud drinking games.” Yet as Critic reveals today in the News section, facing similar pressure to Gardies, the Cook's owners are looking for the exits. The bar’s recent history reveals that the University has opposed its existence, most notably launching an attack on the Cookathon that led to such events being made illegal.
Part-owner Richard McLeod does not accuse the University of any serious foul play. After he completed an International Business degree in 2001, McLeod and three other young lads bought The Cook in 2004. “I guess it’s easy to have a crack at the University. I think any concerns they’ve had have been legitimate to be honest. There’s been times where we’ve thought we could have been dealt with differently, but I think they’ve always just been trying to protect Otago University. Whether they’ve got ulterior motives? ... I’m not really into trying to pick what the University’s motives are.”
Questioned on the University’s opposition to their liquor license, McLeod was again unwilling to point the finger: “I don’t think there’s been any undue pressure from them. In terms of the kind of pressure they can apply it’s kind of limited I guess. They objected against Cookathon, some of their points were valid.”
Geoghegan also describes a sympathetic approach to The Cook by the Uni’s higher powers; “I have discussed The Cook with Chief Operating Officer John Patrick and the Vice Chancellor actually, and they are certainly of the opinion that it would be a real loss if it was gone – they understand the need for a good student pub.”
It is not the University that has forced The Cook onto a list of threatened species. The University's opposition to the Cookathon, an event which saw absolutely destroyed students in elaborate costumes staggering loudly through campus all day, four days a year, is understandable, but again simply symptomatic of the University's severe distaste for public associations of drunkenness with its campus.
What are they protecting?
It is nigh impossible to show with any certainty that the demises of Gardies and The Bowler are part of an evil University master plan. The University needed these rare plots of North Dunedin land. The fact that the process of acquiring them involved shutting down student bars may have just been a pleasant bonus. But the recurring theme of this investigation is that the University has an obsession with nullifying the image of drunken disorder it fears has infected its international brand. This obsession has manifested itself in various forms.
Take, for example, the posters that confront students in various places throughout the University’s departments. Pictures of toga’d first-years causing mayhem on George Street in 2009, with the by-line: “It’s your degree that’s being trashed … It has taken 140 years to build Otago’s reputation. Don’t destroy it.” This hostile message greets students on campus every day. The poster shows no indication of concern for the safety, welfare, or condition of students, public, or the community – only concern for the University’s reputation.
Last year, when the University was going through the motions of expelling a student for throwing eggs at the Toga Parade, it went to extreme efforts to demonstrate the extent of the damage that had been caused in the media. In a document for the High Court, leaked to Critic last year, 58 pages are dedicated to clippings of media coverage. Included are transcripts from talk radio and television news, editorial cartoons, and cut-outs of the story from the national papers. Also attached are ratings statistics and circulation figures, demonstrating how many people were exposed to the news. None of the stories mentions the student who was eventually expelled. The document is a telling demonstration of just how deeply the University cares about its public image. The Toga Parade was a PR disaster, and the University found a scapegoat to pay for it.
The earliest and still most extreme step that the University has taken in battling student misbehaviour was the 2007 introduction of the Code of Conduct (CoC). The document, which all students must sign during enrolment, gave the University power to punish students for bad behaviour in their private lives. The CoC mostly represented the University making a conscious decision to take responsibility for the welfare of its students and the surrounding community. But protecting the University’s reputation was undeniably a key motive for the CoC. In a 2008 interview with The Press, Director of Student Services David Richardson outlined how the Undie 500 riots affected the University’s reputation: “It becomes a media issue, and we as a University are totally dependent upon young people choosing to come here from somewhere else where they've got a university and, more importantly, we're dependent upon academic staff choosing to come here from anywhere in the world."
The common argument that many observers will come up with at this point is that media reports of the University closing down places like Gardies are the type of news items most likely to do damage to the University’s reputation in the eyes of undergrads or even parents. For so many years it has been the promise of a unique, carefree lifestyle that has made Dunedin such a popular choice of study town. The vast majority of students were not sold on the excitement of a magnificent library or the ‘number-one research university in New Zealand’ statistic. They were sold on stories or brief experiences of the lifestyle.
Of course, this may no longer be the type of student that the University is chasing. A quick look at different advertising campaigns over the last decade would suggest that the University no longer wants to attract the prospective student whose eyes light up at the sight of stolen road signs spewing out of a flat closet (an infamous image in the Get Over It campaign), but would now prefer the shy young lad, awkward Goth girl, or country town lecturer, that simply wants to ‘take their place in the world.’
Protect and Preserve?
Many of the Otago alumni Critic spoke to believed that the University needed to be “careful” in their meddlings with student culture. Some thought that the iconic and unique environment offered by places like Gardies is in fact so crucial to the experience offered by studying at the University of Otago, that never mind actively trying to take these places down – steps should be taken to ensure their existence as a draw card for future generations of students.
For Clarke Gayford, the lessons learnt from the Scarfie lifestyle were the best parts of his education. “You’re pretty much getting two degrees while you’re down there, and one of them’s just a life degree where you’re getting all these skills, and you’re learning to socialise, it’s just such a great town for that to happen … My point was just that Otago Uni needs to be very careful, because part of the joy of Otago is the student culture, the student life, and if they go around telling students that they’re bad people and closing everything like Gardies all the time, they’re really going to bite the hand that feeds them.”
Richard McLeod volunteered a similar stance on the matter: “I am of the view that you need a safe campus, but there’s a certain fine line between that and just commodifying yourself so you’re just like every other university in the world. Otago’s got something quite special about it in terms of the sociability factor and it’s pretty upsetting to see that lost. I guess it’s easy to beat up on the Uni, it’s a reasonably narrow tightrope they’re walking, but you just hope that they balance out both sides.”
Killing me softly
The inescapable fact is that these pubs were offered for sale because at some point recently, students stopped spending so much money there. The reasons for this have little to do with the University. According to McLeod, the main reason “is pretty simple. Just the gap between the cost of drinking at an on-license premise and at a supermarket or bottle store has widened dramatically. Our stats show that more people are getting turned away at the door, and are just using the facilities to dance; for every four people that come in only one goes to the bar.”
Dr. Lesley Procter, a University of Otago Sociology lecturer, elaborated with additional reasons: “Higher fees and reduced opportunities for part-time work (meaning reduced income) would have to be seen as limits on the exuberance of the culture … From class discussions it is clear to me that the stereotypical 'Scarfie' is really a minority, and possibly a dying breed … a response to the very real economic pressures upon students.”
Ultimately it is this disparity between the price of alcohol at supermarkets/bottle stores and bars, combined with a relative reduction in students’ disposable income, that has made student bars an almost impossible venture. McConnon confesses that Gardies was “never a money-making venture” for the owners. They ran it mostly out of “altruism” for the last five years, “just wanting to provide an environment where people could be a bit loose than other pubs would allow them.” The Cook currently faces an identical predicament. McLeod says they are “totally passionate about North Dunedin … but there’s no doubt that students need to make sure they support an icon if they want it to be there in ten years’ time.”
To lose all three of these pubs – Gardies, The Bowler and The Cook – would be very sad indeed. These are the Dunedin landmarks of which the average Scarfie, even if that term makes him or her cringe, is most proud. They are the places you might take your visiting friends and relatives to show off the unique social conditions that you’ve been mastering every weekend. They are the bars in which you automatically have a common bond with every other patron; you share similar timetables, similar challenges, and similar living conditions, and most of all, you share the fact that you’re in Dunedin because you were seduced by a lifestyle in which such a gathering is a daily joy.