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Casting a lead role in all-singing and dancing team

I suppose when you're a big star you're entitled to a burst of histrionics now and then. Ruth has been shrieking at anyone who dares cough or sneeze in her direction because she's on stage all week and simply can't afford to catch cold, darling.

She's had a tough time because not only did the other senior staff sport viruses that reduce speech to the growl of an angry Labrador, but her offspring developed chickenpox. How lucky can you get. But the show must go on - and so did Ruth.

Okay, so the chorus line of My Fair Lady in an amateur production isn't really mega stardom, and she admits she still hasn't quite got the hang of singing and dancing at the same time but we all went along to cheer her.

The backdrops wobbled and the staircase creaked but next day lecturers could be heard humming "I could have danced all night" and saying "Oh, you are kind," in plummy voices to baffled students.

That whiff of greasepaint has pervaded the interviews for next session's course places and made them seem a bit like auditions. Starry hopefuls have been going through their paces. For those straight from school, college can seem glamorous and the idea of an independent lifestyle tempting but the reality can be harsh indeed. All I want is a room somewhere, but making ends meet, paying bills is getting tougher.

One of my current mature students is clearly merit material, his work shot through with insight and originality, but always just missing the mark. Yes he'd like to devote more energy to his work, attend classes faithfully, Rob admits, but he's juggling two part-time jobs to pay his mortgage. Last week he hadn't had time to prepare for an assessment. "I sat down at 4am when I came in from work to read through the material and the next thing I heard was the milkman."

Even Jack is showing signs of stress and he's one of the most enthusiastic students I've ever met. Nearing the end of his first year he's looking slightly less fresh-faced and distinctly more frazzled. On Tuesday evening he was the usher at the local cinema taking my ticket. On Wednesday morning he arrived late for class, and I could hear explosive mutterings as he shuffled papers.

Running to college, he'd tripped, dropped the report he'd been working on and now the front page was adorned with pigeon droppings. "Never mind - that's lucky," his friend said cheerfully as Jack tried scrubbing at this mark of distinction, finally coating it over with a thick layer of Tipp-Ex. "If I get any more lucky I'm going home," he decided, perhaps wisely.

Poverty is having a tangible effect on students' work as they juggle part-time jobs to pay bills, find study time non-existent and sleep often a luxury. Jack will struggle on through another bad day and his enthusiasm for the course will see him through.

Rob will play off paying the bills against possible merits and probably decide a pass in all he can afford. But for every rob and Jack who grit their teeth and get on with it there is another student who becomes a casualty and gives up.

Then there's Lisa. She joined a big building society straight from school. It was paid well, offered a good career structure and everyone was envious. She cried every night for a month because she hated it so much. But you get used to anything, she said, and she stuck it out for a couple of years.

This year, however, she's signed up for a course with us as a first step towards becoming a nurse. "It's a big decision giving up a job, doing a course and then maybe not finding work at the end of it, but it feels right." The students I speak to have enthusiasm and commitment in abundance. They need it. But further education's not a luxury, nor should it be a gruelling endurance test.

While we're chatting to prospective students, Those at the top are selecting our new principal. Last week word went round that members of the long leet were being shown round our floor. By the time I found an excuse to walk the corridor, the place was deserted, with only the faintest whiff of aftershave remaining. The announcement of who's got the part is imminent.

They will have a hard act to follow, playing against a backdrop of cuts, increasing competition and student poverty. But we're a brilliant cast of professionals, all-singing, all-dancing. Further education? This show will run and run.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media communications at Dundee College

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