Over its 125-year history, OUSA has achieved and changed many things in Dunedin student life, from the introduction of the Capping Show and hosting great parties like Hyde Street to more serious matters of equality and support within both the university and the association.
OUSA was founded back when men wore suits casually and women rarely showed their ankles. In 1890, a group of students launched the Otago University Students’ Association. These were the same students who, two years previously, had launched the Otago University Review. This was a student newspaper designed to bring students together over issues and to ensure that the student “esprit de corps”, or morale, would continue to develop. Ritual Song of Defiance by Sam Elworthy reveals that the origins of the Review lie in none other than the Debating Society. “The REVIEW [sic] brought students together over issues,” Elworthy writes, and although “at first the REVIEW struggled to remain viable” due to editors being “continually plagued by a lack of articles and reports,” the Review came out regularly each month until World War One. Practical student concerns were aired in the Review, and it was these concerns that led to OUSA’s formation.
At a general meeting on 20 May 1890, it was decided that a student body would be valuable in running the students’ room, organising capping events, organising socials and approaching the professional board and the University Council with any student concerns. Membership was open to all students and graduates for an annual fee of one shilling (equivalent to around $40 today). By 1892, OUSA had 198 members from a total student population of 213, and while some members may have already graduated, this is still a fair chunk of the student body wanting representation within the university domain.
In the early days, OUSA was mainly concerned with student comfort and social activities. In 1890 a sub-committee was set up to negotiate with the University Council over the student rooms which, in typical Scarfie fashion, were never in good repair. Petitions were also set up over the loss of tennis courts, which were replaced with a mining school. In the following years, the OUSA Executive, comprised mostly of the wealthier students, discussed courses and fees, capping celebrations, lecture times and the lengths of holidays, as well as organising an annual ball and numerous social evenings. The association’s professional structure brought a sort of corporate life to the university and it was soon taken seriously by the University Council after raising the money to have Allen Hall built as a new student area, with everything but the wages for the janitor taken care of by OUSA. In the later 1920s, OUSA also gathered funds to lease the Logan Park grounds from the Dunedin City Corporation. The association took control of the grounds, employing a groundsman and building a grandstand and running track on the area now used as the New Caledonian grounds.
The capping festivities were especially important for OUSA. In the late 1890s, Capping — the graduation ceremony for students — had a reputation for being disorganised and anarchic. In 1894 the University of New Zealand banned public graduation ceremonies completely, due to bad student behaviour. Until 1898, when public ceremonies were finally reinstated, students had to make do with a congratulatory function including their own concerts. Upon reinstatement, it was decided that a capping carnival would be held separately, with the public charged for admission. The Carnival attracted huge crowds and raised almost half of the yearly income for the Students’ Association. This is now known as the Capping Show, with many of the acts similar to what we have today, a sextet, dancing and comedic acts all featuring.
While OUSA handled events and socialising, it also needed to address important issues. Women were asking for equal footing and representation within both the university and OUSA. While women had theoretically been admitted to the university from 1871, this was not the general case, as financial difficulties and resistance from male staff and students prevented many from attending. Those who did were largely segregated from men in the early years. There was open hostility towards women entering specialist schools such as medicine. When Emily Siedeberg, the first female medical graduate, began classes, she had pieces of flesh thrown at her as male students made their feelings towards a woman in their intellectual midst clear.
In such a hostile environment, women developed their own social clubs and organisations, including the Haringa club in 1889, and the University Kahanga in 1902. They eventually and cautiously began to assert their rights in other areas of the student body. Up till this point, OUSA had no female representatives as they had been ignored when the first constitution was written. In 1891 women were formed into a separate faculty with the right to elect a representative the same way other faculties did, so long as these representatives were men. This changed at a general meeting in 1894, after some strong words from a Miss Polson, when it was decided that women should be able to represent themselves. But it was not until 1902 that the first woman was elected onto the OUSA Executive. A breakthrough was made in 1914 when Dorothea Tucher was elected senior vice-president, the first woman to stand for a position chosen by general ballot. In 1920 the Women’s Faculty was dissolved, and women joined men in their respective faculties. New leadership roles were won for women with Johanna Bronsnan becoming the first woman editor of the Review in 1917 and Margaret Cotterhill becoming the first woman president of a student club of open membership (the Literary Society) in 1932.
Women had to fight hard against male students on most fronts; even with the above achievements, it took until 1982 for OUSA to have its first female president, Phyllis Comerford. Over the 1930s, female students began lobbying to be allowed to perform alongside their male counterparts in the annual Capping Show. They were finally allowed to join in 1946, and today we have new all-female acts such as Sexytet that the show would not be the same without. This year seven of the elected executive members are women.
Kyle Matthews has a long history with OUSA, beginning in his first year of study at the University of Otago. He says of the association, “OUSA really was a lifestyle choice. In 1994 I was spending more time there as a volunteer than I [was] on my studies, and it was 100 percent what I wanted to be doing at that time of my life.” He was an executive member in 1996: “there was nothing particularly special about the executive, other than it was the next thing I wanted to do in that work. The institution and the work that it did was more significant.”
OUSA can, at times, be an extremely politically minded group. The political hive-mind of our students has come to a head several times in the history of OUSA, especially over the later war periods. The Vietnam War received great attention, with Dunedin setting up its own Committee on Vietnam. OUSA became involved in 1965, when members of the executive moved that a letter should be sent to the prime minister protesting the deployment of Kiwi troops in Vietnam. This was forwarded to the student council, which passed three resolutions opposing the government’s actions in Vietnam. The Vietnam issue led to the radicalisation of a section of students, labelled “beardies and weirdies” by the government. The Drama Society began staging works of social commentary on the issue, and political National and Labour clubs grew and flourished. OUSA held weekly forums with guest speakers, and students wrote protest songs to be performed by the Folk Music Club.
War, however, was not the only subject on the mind of political students. In 1965, students protested the lack of government funding for universities at the opening of the new Library building by Education Minister Arthur Kinsella. Mixed flatting became an issue in 1967 after the new university vice-chancellor tried to oust a male student from a flat of three female students. The then OUSA President Bruce Robertson spoke at a large live-in protest at the student union. This event led to the executive demanding more direct student representation on the University Council, which the council was not willing to give.
OUSA had its fair share of radicalness in the 1970s, when parties, drug abuse and police busts were becoming a part of everyday student life. When students began electing less “boring” candidates, political issues began to appear more in the executive’s agenda, which previously would have been passed along to the student council. In 1970 the executive passed a motion supporting the activities of Halt All Racist Tours, and later on that year students elected Ebraima Manneh, a black radical student, as OUSA president.
Not all students were happy with the way OUSA reacted to political issues though; in 1972 the Otago Daily Times ran a large article put forward by 52 students asking OUSA to end all involvement in political issues. This didn’t happen. Instead, OUSA continued to challenge things. The association challenged the university more directly over issues such as the appointment of the proctor, which was seen as the university going too far and interfering in students’ lives. In the early 1980s, OUSA openly opposed the infamous Springboks’ tour, causing a divide among students.
Fiona Bowker works in the University Information Centre and has been involved with OUSA for close to 20 years. She was also the Critic editor from 2000 to 2001. “There is a lot of resistance to open student protest nowadays,” she says, reflecting back on the days when OUSA and the university’s students would conduct mass sit-ins over things like fee changes. There might be a slight sense of complacency among present-day students, but in the past radical and successful protests occurred with relative frequency. “Ebraima Manneh and [up to two-thirds of the total student roll at that time] occupied the Registry Building in what was, I think, the first such occupation at Otago,” Bowker says, “in protest of new discipline regulations.” Bowker believes that the most important thing it can do for Otago’s students is to re-establish a more robust way of communicating with students — and, above all, stay alive and active.
Around the mid-1970s, gay and lesbian students began to openly assert themselves. An attempt to set up a Gay Liberation Movement failed, but a connection with Youthline was established. In 1979 the first “Gay Pride Week” was held, with students wearing a pink triangle and blue jeans to signify their sexuality. While this was surely out there at the time, fast forward to today and we have an active OUSA Student Support Centre with the only funded Queer Support Programme in New Zealand. This service is dedicated to making sure this university is one of the most inclusive tertiary institutions in the country. Hahna Briggs, the queer support co-ordinator for 2015, said that it is important for students to have someone to come and talk to in a non-judgmental and safe space, as it can be frightening trying to figure out your identity, and coming out to friends and family doesn’t always have a positive outcome. As the co-ordinator, Briggs is in charge of running regular support meetings, educating and training on sexuality both on and off campus, as well as training volunteer interns for the Peer Support Programme.
OUSA’s Support Centre covers a lot more than just Queer Support, though. They help with anything — from lost property to flat disputes, grade disagreements to bullying. They offer a “no questions asked” food bank for students under financial strain, which includes recipes to make the most nutritious meals out of your food parcel.
OUSA has given students a voice through which they can present their issues in a dignified and respectable manner. Through issues of equality of the sexes at university and within OUSA itself, through riots and protests and standing up not only to university authorities but also to government ministers, OUSA has proven itself resourceful and active, making sure that students feel represented and are able to make changes where they see problems.
2015 OUSA President Paul Hunt said: “In the era of voluntary student membership, OUSA will need to ensure it vigorously focuses on meeting the needs and interests of Otago students in order to remain relevant. While this will be a challenge, OUSA’s strong history and recent performance in the VSM era place OUSA in a strong position to continue to represent, advocate, support and provide a diverse range of services to Otago students.”
OUSA has come far in its 125 years, and who knows what crazy things it will be able to achieve in the future.