While some student unions have banned the army from recruiting in freshers' week, women students are queueing up to join its Officer Training Corps for the training, experience and financial help it offers. Anne Sebba reports
The army has not always had a good name among students. Recently, several student unions voted not to give any of the services floor space to recruit during freshers' week, accusing the army of being "a homophobic organisation, opposed to gays and lesbians".
But if student unions are looking askance at the armed forces, many male students, tempted by cheap beer, sponsorship deals and adventurous travel opportunities, are still finding that the best club to join at university is the Officer Training Corps. And these days women, partly attracted by new army policies that state - in theory at least - that no rank is too high for a woman, are following suit.
In the past two years, the opportunities for women to take an active role in the British army have soared. From being allowed to serve in 47 per cent of all areas, 70 per cent are now open to women. The "teeth arms" of household cavalry, armoured corps and infantry remain closed because of doubts about women's physical suitability for front-line combat, but the media is full of pictures of women soldiers performing key roles in international conflicts.
"We now have a woman commanding a Royal Engineers platoon in Bosnia, surveying roads, detecting and destroying mines, and that's no mean feat," says an army spokesman.
This intensive welcoming programme has filtered down to recruiting at university OTC level. In some universities women make up to 40 per cent of the corps.
Following the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, the army has also recognised that skills traditionally seen as more "feminine" can be valuable. Two of the newest courses on the 11-month syllabus at Sandhurst, where all officers begin their army training, teach negotiating techniques - how to get a food convoy past an armed militia, for example - and media skills.
"What the public thinks about what we do is very important," explained officer cadet Amber Lee, when I met her at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. She had had only four hours' sleep the night before. "We're in the middle of an all-night training exercise, where you sit in a big shed with headsets, learning how to use radios and other signals. I was lucky to grab four hours' sleep."
Lee, who studied maths at Cardiff University, joined the university OTC in her first year. In her final year, she applied for a three-year, short-service commission to join the army and was given a bursary worth Pounds 500 a term. "This was a big help because it meant I didn't have to take out a student loan," she says. Now she's completing her officer training at Sandhurst and she hopes to go out to Germany in four months with the Royal Logistics Corps.
Some women who join their university OTCs may be tempted by the social life: mess dinners, three balls a year and a party most weekends. But they are in the minority; most OTCs are oversubscribed and those selected have to enjoy rolling in mud, wading through freezing rivers and all the other ways the army finds to test their fitness.
Being woken up in the middle of the night, often in the cold and wet, to do guard duty is everybody's worst moment, especially when faced with an early lecture the next day. There are no concessions made to women, who are often determined to go the extra mile just to prove they are as tough, mentally and physically, as their male counterparts.
Katy O'Brien, a geography student at Exeter, considers her best moment in the OTC was commanding a platoon of men during a recent exercise in Scotland. "I had no problems with any of them, they were all very well behaved," she says.
Most students who join the OTC do so at freshers' fair during their first weekend. The commitment is a minimum of one evening a week and two weekends a term. The pay is approximately Pounds 30 for a full day and although students say it is a useful bonus, they add that it is hardly enough to justify joining.
Some cadets, such as Lee, who subsequently decide they want to join the army and pass the rigorous four-day RCB (Regular Commissions Board) test, may receive bursaries of Pounds 500 a year while still at university. Others, who have made a greater commitment and show outstanding ability, can gain cadetships of between Pounds 10,000 and Pounds 12,000 a year.
And academics, who might once have taken a hostile view of a military organisation recruiting students on campus, are today encouraging. "There has been a change of attitude towards the armed forces in the past few years," says Colonel Alan Roberts, pro-chancellor of Leeds University and a consultant clinical scientist specialising in plastic surgery.
Col Roberts, a former chairman of the Council of Military Education Committees, the umbrella organisation for university OTCs, says: "The ethos of the army has changed and all three services are seen as professional organisations that the academic community can relate to. The army is now seen as a peacekeeping, humanitarian force. The academic community, which takes an active interest in current affairs, can relate to that."
But former English literature professor Robert Green, now army liaison officer at Southampton University, believes academics still fall into two camps. "The enlightened ones recognise that a student who spends three years in a military unit gains key transferable skills such as time management, self-discipline, leadership ability and self-confidence, which all employers, civilian or military, want," he says.
"The less enlightened, a declining number, display a knee-jerk anti-militarism. They blame the OTC if the student doesn't attend lectures. The evidence we have is that students who have spent time in the OTC are more highly regarded and come out with higher results than their counterparts."
Although 85 per cent of Sandhurst students are graduates, approximately 80 per cent of university officer cadets do not go on either to Sandhurst for further training or to join the Territorial Army. The OTCs' main purpose is not to recruit but to build bridges between communities.
As officer cadet Nicki Blackmun, a recent York University cadet, says:
"This is the best thing I ever did. I've done a degree and I've tried industry. They might challenge you academically but the army training challenges you in everything you do, every day."