Your guide to reading a column

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Most years around this time I seem to find myself sitting in a conference hall amidst a very peculiar group of people.

I'd like to be able to say that they all have pointed ears and prehensile tails, but in fact they really look very ordinary indeed.

What they have in common - what we have in common - is that we are all advisers of some sort in that great 1990s' game called "getting your students into university".

Perhaps it's because the entrance system has become so labyrinthine and complicated that these gatherings of advisers - normally on some rain-sodden campus in middle England - attract such an odd set.

But then if you can imagine an application form of three pages that comes complete with a set of instructions eight pages long, then you're starting to get an idea of just where we're at. It's not compulsory to wear knitted cardigans with football buttons - or even to be a deputy headmaster of a grammar school - but, as they say, it helps.

Perhaps it's the UCAS-speak that really turns them on. UCAS (the University and Colleges Admissions Service) issues the said form and accompanying handbook and some of their prose, I might suggest, is more than a touch redolent of the bureaucratic mind. Take this little gem from the first section on art courses, recruiting, for the first time this year, through UCAS.

"When you have chosen the courses you wish to apply for through the earlier route, you should complete the application form as explained in the instructions for completion of the UCAS application form and tick the box in Section 3 to indicate that you will later apply for some courses via the later route."

Yes, well, you can just see that going down a bomb with the artistic types can't you?

But then it's not UCAS's fault that we still have such a barmy system that requires tens of thousands of prospective students to apply for their university places months in advance of even sitting their exams - yet alone getting the results that will determine whether or not they are actually qualified to go.

It's supposed to be changing of course, but with the universities dragging their feet and the exam boards playing hard to get, who knows when that change will come about. In the meantime the HE advice industry (of which we advisers are but a tiny part) continues to grow and grow.

For instance, you can't help but notice that every year as soon as the conkers drop and pomegranates first appear on supermarket shelves, the broadsheet newspapers are fat with supplements offering cut out and keep guides to finding the perfect place.

And then there are books and pamphlets galore, not to mention a vast array of computer programs, CD Roms and full colour video presentations. And the fact that they all, in their different ways, say the same things over and over does nothing to prevent the punters buying them in huge numbers.

The one that I like the best, if only for its sheer audacity, is Tony Higgins' book How to Complete your UCAS Form. No, it isn't a joke. It really is a book about how to fill in a form. No doubt the eight pages UCAS itself provides simply aren't enough.

And let's face it, Mr Higgins ought to know. He's the chief executive of UCAS - the man in charge of the body that set up the whole complicated system in the first place!

So far How to Complete Your UCAS Form seems not to have been nominated for the Booker Prize, but at Pounds 6.95 a throw (plus Pounds 1.60 for postage and packing) it presumably makes a bob or two for Mr Higgins himself.

Personally I haven't read it. I've decided to wait for the film: a UCAS production starring Sharon Stone as Girl in Search of a Physics Degree and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the UCAS handbook.

Until it does appear though, I've decided to jump on the bandwagon and release my own multi-media compilation: The Jones Guide to Applying for University. It may not have Sharon Stone, but at least it's short.

THE GUIDE:How to leave home, get laid and pay for the rest of your life (Six things every prospective student should know.) 1 Be middle-class. Mr Major might promise the classless society, but the age of working-class advancement through higher education ended circa 1972.

2 Have lots of money. This may have a connection with 1 above.

You will need all the loot you can get to (a) pay back the thousands of pounds you'll undoubtedly owe to the student loan company and others by the end of your course, andor (b) to pay your tuition fees in the new "ivy league" if the Russell Group of universities get their grasping way.

3 Get your degree before you apply. That way you'll be able to fill out the form to enable you to get a place to get the degree in the first place.

4 Change your name to Higgins and write a best-seller entitled The Applicant.

5 Start your preparations at age 12.

6 Remember that there are only 30 miles between Luton and Cambridge but 30 thousand miles (metaphorically speaking) between the universities that bear their names.

Stephen Jones is a London FE lecturer

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