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The dark side of the classroom - Bang, buck and a bit of luck

The students arrived casting furtive looks and clutching backpacks defensively. By the end of the week, they were picnicking in quadrangles and espousing Hegelian dialectics.

That was what I witnessed, roughly, when I spent a week recently working at a Sutton Trust summer school. The initiatives are held at a range of leading UK universities for able school pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Such residential schemes have long played an important role in widening participation at our elite universities, but this year the project held a new significance: it allowed students to "try before they buy".

This is a change in mindset. A few years ago when I was in the sixth form, our careers adviser would "advise" anyone who accidentally stumbled into his office. The other pupils paid their money and took their chances. It hasn't always worked out. For some of my classmates, the most university has provided was the unique opportunity to put on weight at the expense of the taxpayer while gaining a degree with the market value of the fried tomato in a cooked breakfast.

But the financial stakes have changed now. Sadly, we cannot - as Jessie J suggests - "forget about the price tag". The free market has urinated on the dreams of our youth. Our students are now customers and our universities retailers. In this respect our teachers, as experienced shoppers themselves, are becoming more important than ever. You see the problem with being a consumer is that vendors will say anything to get you through the door. TK Maxx might promise top-quality goods at a cut price, but a cannier shopper knows that John Lewis's extended warranty pays in the end (plus the furnishings are nicer).

Scotland, formerly supplier of cut-price quality degrees, has decided its pious dedication to free education is contingent on which side of Berwick you call home. Support is available, but the playing field has changed and the onus falls on staff to help students make the prudent choice. Some students are lucky; I was fortunate to have an excellent head of sixth form who knew his Martinmas from his McDonald's and pointed me in the right direction.

Another seismic shift in the landscape of university applications lies in the teacher's reference. Call the admissions department of any university and they will weave the dance of the seven veils around the issue, seductively casting off terms like "holistic" and "idiosyncratic". Yet the conclusion is evident: with unprecedented levels of applicants to choose from, the teacher's reference really counts.

Writing student references must be an onerous task. When you have the Government breathing down your neck for APP data and your boss demanding a new scheme of work, writing references for students like me - who put a few days at Glastonbury above your last lesson - is a test of your altruism. But while your Year 12s spend their summers contorting their bodies into tents, and their personal statements into painfully extended metaphors, remember that whatever Jessie J says, that now it is about the money - kerching kerching - and it's our teachers who help us get the most bang for our buck.

Son of Thrope is a no good, beer-swilling university student, and son of Ms Anne Thrope, a secondary school teacher from the North of England. Ms Anne Thrope is away.

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