"Unacceptable and insidious" harassment by Dunedin students has hit breaking point and the University of Otago needs to take action, residents say.

Otago bioethics PhD candidate Emma Tumilty co-signed a letter with 10 other people who live and work in the student precinct, calling on vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne to act.

"This is not another letter about couch burning or broken glass, or piles of vomit in the street," says the letter, sent yesterday. "I'm afraid it is much more serious."

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Arrests after couch burnings during Otago University's Orientation Week

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The problem, the letter says, is an "unacceptable and insidious" level of harassment in the student quarter, including "racist speech/slurs, street harassment towards women, and trans- and homophobia".

"Aside from physical destruction," Mrs Tumilty said yesterday, "what upsets us most was this aggression towards others, [towards] women, or people who are slightly different - hurling bottles and abuse at people as they pass".

Former Otago student Jessie-Lee Robertson said she had suffered verbal abuse - including an incident last week. She was in her car with her dog on Albany St when a van load of young people pulled up next to her. "[They] opened the sliding door of their van and said, 'If that dog wasn't in your car, I'd rape you'."

The most shocking part, she said, was that it happened while she was in her car. She had already begun avoiding the main streets of "studentville" for fear of abuse, but did not expect it on the road.

Mikayla Cahill, a third-year student, had also been harassed in the student quarter several times, most recently last week, Orientation Week.

Detective Senior Sergeant Kallum Croudis said there was a consistent stream of "complaints about criminal behaviour of a sexual nature" in Dunedin, and a "small spike" of those kinds of complaints during Orientation Week.

Police took the complaints seriously, especially after learning "some very poignant lessons about sexual violence".

"We haven't always got it right ... and now, our position is, let's get in and have a look at it in every case before we put it to the side."

He knew not all incidents were reported to police, and acknowledged the issue of harassment likely needed to be talked about more.

Professor Hayne acknowledged the importance of educating students about harassment. She responded to Mrs Tumilty, saying she had "no tolerance whatsoever for this kind of behaviour".

The university, she wrote, was working on developing "two educational programmes for Otago students" - one for students in residential colleges that would begin next semester, and another to start next year as part of the Orientation education programme.

Professor Hayne also suggested Mrs Tumilty contact Otago University Students' Association president Laura Harris, "an extremely smart and thoughtful young woman who shares many of your concerns".

Ms Harris said OUSA was taking the issue seriously, too. One of its "focal points" this year focused on sexual harassment education and prevention.