Were you a boffin or a drunk?

I SPENT an enjoyable half-hour this week with the new educational lad-magazine Full On, part-funded by assorted London borough councils in an attempt to persuade disaffected boys that education is not about nerdy boredom but equals power, cool, respeck! It's rather good. In between the garage reviews, rock websites and pictures of girl skateboarders with pink hair and bare navels, my eye fell on a lurid page headed "Why uni?"

I read on, gallantly suppressing my middle-aged snobbish hatred of the term "uni" (if you can't be bothered to finish one word, what hope for your degree, eh?). The students quoted talk - in snappy little broken-up wordbites on violent coloured blobs - about doing "a subject you really enjoy" and slightly less relevantly scatter the words "cool", "gig" and "club" (though, mercifully, not "wasted", "fit birds" and "doss").

One boy rather worryingly claims that the work is "much easier than I thought it would be". But, actually, the page makes a reasonable case in few words, which also include "career you're passionate about", "qualification" and "power and choice".

It set me thinking, though, about what image of university usually gets conveyed to both boys and girls of all types and tastes by the most popular media. A quick tabloid scan of newspapers revealed that the most common aspects of student life reported are drunkenness, drugs, debt and debauchery. If the poor student concerned has met with tragedy or been arrested for rape, this is leavened with references to shining promise and dedicated hard work. Otherwise, students surface intermittently in the local papers having rag weeks, taking part in bizarre experiments dreamed up by academics desperate for a headline, or getting crippled by debt.

On television, by and large, the student vanishes: leaving for university is the end of the drama, the sad goodbye to the boyfriend, the moment when the empty-nest mother starts a scorching affair. Studying - being woefully static - is done offscreen. The most prominent student in a soap at present is Toyah in Coronation Street, who occasionally mentions "uni" while apparently spending all her time sorting out her mother's doomed love life, serving in the cafe or picking up Croatian asylum seekers in Blackpool. What she is studying remains a mystery.

So we are left with the cinema, which offers an unsettling montage of university life. There is Iris, in which academic activity is confined to a couple of beautifully lit lectures on Platonism by Judi Dench, and the fabled inability of dons to get round Tesco without embarking on explorations of the meaning of "whole" in wholegrain mustard. Apart from that, you throw yourself into the river in the nude, dance like a Bacchante, smoke in a significant manner when asked in dimly-lit cafes about your sexuality, and are allowed to keep a very untidy house.

Fair enough. But then you go to the next screen and see A Beautiful Mind, which makes it clear that the point of higher education is to scribble obscure equations on venerable leaded windows, cut lectures to study the territorial behaviour of pigeons, and hallucinate about being followed by CIA spooks in big black hats. If you stay on and get really eminent in your field, you go through strange ceremonies with fountain-pens and nobody minds about you walking backwards ranting at imaginary flatmates.

Otherwise - unless you go back a long way to Shadowlands and episodes 1 and 2 of Brideshead Revisited - university dons are all "professors" and generally boffins, who get visited by the action hero in search of some lethal secret. They are rarely seen lecturing, let alone conducting seminars with callow 19-year-olds. And whatever they do , they hardly ever do it in ordinary modern buildings, or even redbrick. Professors in the movies need either futuristic labs or sandstone turrets and cloisters.

Oddly enough, the only current youth-friendly film I can think of which offers university realism is Legally Blonde. You get an admissions procedure, an encounter with grungey students competing about who did the most right-on gap year, and a couple of terrifying seminars complete with put-downs, raised eyebrows and assignments you were meant to have done but never knew about. You get hard slog in weary late-night bedrooms, anxious jockeying for summer placements, social disorientation, growing passion for the subject and ultimate reward.

Hearteningly accurate, really. Which is curious, considering that it is about a lovestruck airhead in fluffy mules, who follows her man to Harvard Law School and wins her spurs in court by knowing more about Prada and perms than the prosecution does. It might not be the one you instinctively book for sixth-form film club, but it gets closer than most fiction.

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