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March 5, 2013 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

How to Throw Parties and Alienate People

This year’s O-Week will not go down in history.

It won’t be the best of times, and it won’t be the worst of times. It will cost near to a hundred thousand dollars, but no international music acts will play. Was it always like this?

Every year, students’ associations around the country yearn to reach a near impossible ideal– a highly organised week of parties that are actually fun. They get pretty close sometimes–2011 had MGMT and a comedian who was somewhat relevant at the time. 2012 was, well, maybe we shouldn’t talk about 2012. This year’s lineup looked semi-alright at first – Home Brew and Tommy Ill are excellent— until you saw that Otago had secured Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who are only the second independent artists to have a number one single in the US. Whether you think ‘Thrift Shop’ is hella banging or completely overplayed, Macklemore is definitely a drawcard; a good reason to leave the house for a cheap concert; a good opportunity for first years to meet first years and exchange fluids. The usual.

So why don’t we have macklemore? He’s in Wellington around then (playing for more money at the Opera House), he’s open to orientation shows (Otago!), and VUWSA (Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association) has pulled off larger shows in the past. As always, we can blame an abbreviation. A certain three letter initialism you have probably heard dropped into any conversation concerning student politics: VSM.

VSM seems a lot more menacing abbreviated. ‘Voluntary student membership’ sounds almost cuddly. In a parenthesis-laden sentence: VSM means joining a students’ association (and thus paying for their operation) isn’t compulsory for full time students, as of January 1st 2012. Since students are notoriously poor, VUWSA (and many other students’ associations), lowered its fees to zero. as well as the VUWSA trust, Victoria University (kind of) picked up the slack, raising the compulsory student services levy by $154—not far from how much VUWSA membership cost anyway— to fund the essential services that VUWSA carries out. Bear with me, I’ll bring this back to o-week in a second. This means the university has much more control over the way this money is spent—instead of bulk funding VUWSA and letting it does what it wants with the money, it contract out to VUWSA. Contracting lets the university set the terms, which VUWSA has to agree to, and this takes a looooooong time.

How long? well for 2012, VUWSA only had a month to secure gigs. This time around the negotiations took until mid-november— earlier—but too late to sign Macklemore, or any other international artists.

President Rory McCourt is the public face of VUWSA, and thus the easiest person to blame. I asked him how he personally felt about missing out on Macklemore. “I’m disappointed”, he said, “I was excited about signing them.” So what did he blame? “Orientation at Vic needs an overhaul. I think the process is broken… the university, this year and last, has been incredibly prescriptive in managing part of the orientation.” McCourt believes that “VUWSA’s done a really good job getting a great lineup—given the conditions that we’ve had this year, we couldn’t have asked for better.”

VSM isn’t exclusive to Victoria however, and OUSA (Otago University Students’ Association) seemed to have sorted out pretty good O-Weeks for both years under VSM. McCourt points to their relationship with Otago University, which is “definitely more consistent”. Former OUSA president Logan Edgar, who organised an “epic” show featuring Shapeshifter, Shihad, David Dallas, Cairo Knife Fight and many more in 2012, points to forward planning. He claims the setup between Otago University and OUSA is similar, but their relationship is very good. “At the end of the day students want to come down here and have an awesome party… why would the uni try to stop that?” After all, “you lay claim to having the best
O-week in the country; you have to fulfil that.” Current communications co-ordinator for OUSA Alisdair Johnston agrees. “The university of Otago and OUSA have a solid working relationship which allows us to communicate a lot better than we have in the past.”

So is there a problem with the relationship between the university and VUWSA? McCourt doesn’t believe there is an overall relationship problem, rather “it’s a problem with some people in the uni thinking they can run orientation better than students.” Note that “some people”. At least when we have problems with VUWSA we have someone specific to whine to, somewhere we can whine in written form, and some means of whining via a democratic process (VUWSA runs
annual elections where students select their executive). VUWSA is in no way perfect, but it is pretty transparent.  Salient asked the university itself about orientation, and the contracting issues surrounding it. “Funding is provided to VUWSA from the student services levy to run a series of events, VUWSA organises and agrees to the programme of events”, Rainsforth Dix, associate director of campus services, explained. McCourt doesn’t necessarily disagree with this explanation, but he does see the situation with a slightly different eye. “They are encroaching on territory that should be handled by students. They are making decisions about what happens at these events with a level of detail that is not appropriate for a university.” Again, we return to Otago – how are they doing things better? “I think [Otago University] value student input, students organising for students, and student-led orientation more than Victoria.”

However tempting it is though, we can’t compare Wellington and Otago forever. The universities have similar populations, but Dunedin is a city for students, while Wellington is a city for civil servants. “Something like 90% of the people who come here aren’t from Dunedin”, explains Edgar. “You need [O-Week] to meet your neighbours, get some partying out of your system.” Wellington-raised Otago student Florence Isaacs agrees, “they are important for meeting people, which is what you want when you arrive and barely know anyone.” Does Victoria O-Week have similar goals? Pam Thorburn, Director of Student Academic Services, describes O-Week as “a fun and diverse start to the year. Students can find out more about the University and the opportunities and support available to them, as well as take part in social events.” But do the
troves of Wellington-born Victoria students “take part in social events”, or are hall residents the only ones who go?

Wellington-born former Victoria student Michelle Ny didn’t go to her O-Week concerts because “I didn’t have anywhere to stay in the city”—something a hall resident wouldn’t be lacking. Another Wellingtonian explained that she didn’t attend because “[the events] are geared towards the out-of-towners anyway, well, people who were hick enough to think foam and toga parties were cool.”

We aren’t all from here, though. The halls have more applicants than they can take. A week of “meeting your neighbours”, just like Edgar suggested, is needed. A widely diverse group of students come to Victoria; does a neon toga party really appeal to all of them? Large scale music acts are about as universal as you can get with young people, and while home brew & tommy ill are talented and acclaimed artists, they don’t exactly have ‘wide appeal’. We are paying hundreds of dollars for these events through our student services levy, but the results don’t feel like they’re really worth it. As shown by Otago University however, they have the potential to–even under VSM.  McCourt offers a light at the end of the tunnel, which is as nice a way to end this piece as any: an event later in the year with bigger acts. An event “where we can focus on what students want, and get the kind of acts that students here at Vic deserve.” Here’s hoping.


Henry Cooke


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