Boozy culture nothing new at university colleges


Residential colleges present a strange conundrum. Their outward face is serene, as I discovered when taking a Chinese friend, Mingming Feng, on a tour of my old alma mater last year. We took in St John’s and ended up on City Road inside the grounds of St Paul’s. She was impressed: “The atmosphere there is very good. The environment creates a perfect study atmosphere because it’s old, and you won’t be influenced by the outside. If I studied at university, I would want to live there.”

Many young men, often from rural and private-school backgrounds, also want to live there, and pay for the privilege. Living in a college gives you an opportunity to study in a new environment – university is different from school, more demanding and ‘adult’ and young people can experiment with new ways of living. Experimentation has always been a key part of university’s appeal. Unfortunately, so many young men seem to equate experimentation with drunken over-indulgence. The “beautiful, old buildings” witness excesses and harassment which was institutionalised when I lived there in 1981.

‘Freshers’ – first-year residents – were auctioned off in the depth of August’s cold to second- and third-year residents, in what was known as indoctrination. Freshers were dumped and abandoned in NSW’s wilds, in my case with a number of objects from my room – including a lamp, a dictionary – which we had to carry back or leave behind. The idea was to pay a high price for freshers you thought would be the last to return from the forced night-time odyssey. Bidders whose freshers came back last got the money from the auction.

We were given a mixture of vodka and orange juice to make us sleepy. After they left, we built a fire. My shoe was almost burned off when we awoke the next morning on Barrington Tops, near Gloucester.

We made it back soon enough thanks to money I had smuggled out. The search-and-find effort by our ‘owners’ had been fruitless.

Outwitting the enemy was meagre comfort because anyone who didn’t fit in was dogged by misfortune. On one occasion, the entire contents of my room were placed, in their usual formation, on the grass lawn in front of the dorm building. Then there were the nights when gangs of drunken residents roamed around the buildings hooting and calling. You could never drink too much alcohol.

Even if “fresher’ indoctrination” is now no longer carried out, it seems that other aspects of the college fraternity routine are. Stories emerging now about male college residents pawing and threatening female residents of neighbouring colleges – Women’s College is right behind St Paul’s College, and is accessed via a short pathway – are no surprise to me.

At the same time as the young residents were watching the marriage of Diana Spencer and Charles, they were conducting ‘raids’ on Women’s College, which were as routine as a run to the bottle shop for more tequila.

In the morning, shot glasses lined the sandstone window ledges. Themed college toga ‘formals’ ended with participants sloshing around in the dregs of the night’s alcohol. The smell in the dining hall, in the morning, was terrible.

I chanced on another occasion last year to walk down the path leading from City Road toward the Manning Building, which houses the university’s bar and a number of cafes and eateries. Walking away from his car with a slab of beer on his shoulder, the young Paul’s resident didn’t see me.

Residents of St Paul’s who made up a Facebook page endorsing non-consensual sex appear indeed to be uninfluenced by the outside world, where rape is a crime. There were many decent young men at Paul’s when I was there but, in aggregate and under the influence, the tone was low. I left after a year. I didn’t want to be part of the problem. I didn’t want to ‘buy’ a fresher.

My timing was right.

Matthew da Silva is a freelance journalist.

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