Seduction kit: take £1K and a list of local bars

September 1, 2006

Clearing is no longer about denying the needy a chance to prosper, it's about pushing the student experience. Nigel Barley listens in on a few calls

When Big Brother set up a university for housemates on Channel 4's reality TV show, the clearing process took about 30 seconds. It was wildly efficient, except that a third of the students ended up reluctantly reading Welsh. At Thames Valley University, they don't do Welsh and the process takes a little longer. On the train to the Ealing campus, I was surrounded by students. One, in a very snazzy tracksuit, was reading a book about sport management; another agonised over a dummy travel order form that would send you on the holiday from hell in Tierra del Fuego; and a third was explaining in writing how she would market a product called Gasgo. TVU specialises in vocational courses of the unglamorous sort that actually get you a job and, as a result, has an enviable employability rating. Half its students are mature students.

It is the day of the A-level results and the annual clearing festival, the process by which a letter of bad news becomes a letter offering you a place, is in full swing. (Yes, I know in theory it means that some students who do better than expected can now hold out for a better offer, but that's like defining the tax office as the place that sends you refunds. At TVU, incidentally, they charge less than the maximum £3,000 top-up fees, and first-years get a massive £1,000 cashback.) The TVUclearing centre has some 15 monitors manned and womanned by what looks like an advertisement for political correctness - except that they are all young. All universities eat their young, and TVU is no exception, for these are real live student helpers who are now recruiting other students-to-be. The cynical would call them Judas goats, leading others to the slaughter.

But this is a brilliant idea. A week's training course has channelled their enthusiasm without extinguishing it and they are the demotic, estuarinely glottal, overwhelmingly friendly face of contemporary academic life. All the information they need is right there on the screen. In my day, it was clear what joining the quad squad was all about. It was hierarchic and exclusive and everybody's job was to find a good reason to deny you the great treasure they held in truculent trust. Anything would do - the way you knotted your tie, used the English subjunctive or dealt with the stones in cherry pie. Here, instead of frowning pictures of the founding fathers, they have cinema posters on the stairs and they reach out, calm the hysterical, soothe the frustrated, guide the unsure towards courses on offer. But what they are subliminally pushing is student life. The TVU website dwells on the accessibility of local bars but it doesn't mention the library. This is the marketing of seduction. One inquiry is about a graphic design course. "My cousin done that," nods the helper. "She said it was great." Soon she is giggling. The caller seems to have wandered from the beaten track and is trying to chat her up.

I had imagined the clearing room like a grim call centre but it really isn't. Someone's mum calls and wants to organise her slacker of a son. "Just put him on," soothes the helper. "I'm sure we can help him. No, don't you worry. We can sort it out." Some of the callers are brisk and focused, especially those who turned down an earlier offer and now have to crawl back and eat humble pie. Others are vague or hysterical. One, I am almost sure, is drunk. "Things calm down towards the start of term," they explain, "then you get another surge from people whose friends are all coming and they suddenly realise they're not." The phones ring, ring, ring. "Well, I'm not supposed to tell you about accommodation - we have a number I can put you through to for that. But just between us, I pay £100 a week."

Signs of the religion of management in a university context always seem a little bizarre, like those Melanesian cargo cults where the locals make fake landing strips in the jungle, rig "radio sets" of coconut shells and polish the portrait of Prince Phillip to make good things drop from the skies. On the wall is a sign detailing what clearing teamwork should mean: "Trust, Respect, Commitment, Praise/Constructive Criticism." Across the room, a sign offers the student take on proceedings: "Clear'n Innit. Awigh?"

"Sometimes, it's rough," sighs one. "They tell you their life story. They cry. I had one just now. Her mum had died. She'd been ill and unable to revise. It doesn't seem enough just to say 'you've not got the grades' but you mustn't build up their hopes. There are other types of courses, other places..."

I leave without signing up for anything but now I feel guilty and they have open days at the weekend for anyone who feels intimidated by the very idea of a university. I could always come back when the clubs are open.

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