TRIED & TESTED / Cheque them out: As the university year opens, banks are offering various carrots to tempt new students to sign up with them. We set out to test how helpful they really are and how they propose to stretch a student's meagre resources

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THE BANKS are currently presenting their best fronts as they try to reel in this year's catch of undergraduates. As term begins, how well do they know their stuff? And how helpful are they to those on a meagre grant of pounds 2,040 a year (pounds 2,560 in London)?

We sent a reporter, David Parsley, posing as a philosophy student (in popular myth at least, a philosophy degree offers least prospect of gainful employment), to several banks and one building society offering student accounts. Dressed in his best student gear, Doc Martens included, he set out to test how know-ledgeable, polite and understanding staff were.

Our reporter asked about cheque guarantee cards, credit cards, cash limits and overdrafts. To make things a little more difficult, he told the banks that, as he was only getting half the full grant, he'd only be putting a lump sum of about pounds 425 into his account each term. His parents would make up the balance, but in monthly payments.

*BARCLAYS BANK

I presumed from Barclays' leaflet that I'd get the chequebook, cheque guarantee card and, most importantly, the overdraft automatically. But when I told the assistant I'd be unable to deposit the full lump sum each term, it raised some eyebrows. She said the bank would have to see regular monthly payments from my parents before they would issue a Connect card (a debit, cash and cheque card). In the meantime, I could use an ordinary cash card.

Getting a Barclaycard seemed easier than getting a cheque card. Despite this problem, the assistant appeared almost desperate to hook me. She was critical of other banks, claiming they said things they didn't mean. 'We'd always consult you before deducting charges from your account,' she said, 'while others do so without telling you.' Of all the places we visited, Barclays had the least positive attitude towards my financial situation.

**MIDLAND BANK

Rather lukewarm about letting me have a cheque card, and unimpressed by my request for pounds 100, rather than their usual pounds 50 limit - something of a drawback as the cost of four or five books can easily exceed that. This is not an account on which to go above the agreed overdraft limit: the interest rate on unauthorised overdrafts is one of the highest.

The assistant was pleasant, but didn't know much about student accounts. When I asked if the overdraft limit would go up in the second and third years of my course, he was at a loss. He handed me a leaflet, and said: 'It's all in there, OK?' Definitely off-putting.

****HALIFAX BUILDING SOCIETY .TX.- The clear winner in our survey, the Halifax was completely unfazed by my finances; as long as I had confirmation from my parents that they would pay the monthly contributions, they were happy to give me a cheque book and cheque guarantee/Switch/cash card straightaway. The overdraft facility was the highest I was offered - up to pounds 1,000 interest-free for five years. If you exceed this, you will still pay a lower rate of interest than for any of the other accounts in our survey. Even for unauthorised overdrafts (generally not a good idea) the Halifax doesn't impose nearly such swingeing penalties as the rest.

A helpful assistant explained the answers to my long list of questions with a great deal of patience, despite a lengthening queue stretching behind me. None of my questions stumped her. In retrospect, I think it is a bit dodgy giving a student such a big overdraft - though when I was a first-year student it would definitely have attracted me to this account.

**NATWEST BANK

I had to wait 10 minutes to see somebody about the account, which was annoying. The assistant (who was in his 30s, curt and businesslike) made a big play of the fact that they have 350 branches on or around college campuses. He explained that the bank would have to see that my parents did make their contributions monthly before deciding whether to let me have a cheque card. I felt a bit intimidated. It's worth noting, too, that for an authorised overdraft over the modest automatic threshold of pounds 400, the interest rate is higher (9 per cent) than for almost any other bank.

***LLOYDS BANK

This was one of my favourites. The assistant was honest, didn't try the hard sell, and made it clear they were not going to give me something for nothing. She said she would have to discuss the matter with me further before she could give me a cheque card, and warned that the pounds 400 overdraft would not be automatic either; I could get a credit card, although she advised against it at the beginning. The Lloyds leaflet was the best of all - easy to read, and it answered most of my questions.

**ROYAL BANK OF SCOTLAND

The relatively small number of RBS branches put me off. The assistant, presumably well-primed to counter this objection, asked if this really made a difference when it came to choosing something as important as a bank. Well, it does to me. Like most of the banks, he was keen to encourage me to take my future debts somewhere else by taking out a student loan.

**CO-OPERATIVE BANK

For me, the Co-op still conjures up images of stamp books - though these days they cast themselves in a trendier role. As with Lloyds, I liked them because they didn't have a heavy sales pitch. I'd consider opening an account here, despite exorbitant interest rates if your overdraft tops pounds 500. The Co-op's 24-hour home banking service also apppealed, though most other banks and building societies do some kind of out-of-hours telephone service. This bank doesn't offer any freebies: 'We think there are more important things, like trusting your bank,' was the assistant's line. I had to wait 15 minutes to see someone about the account, including five minutes while the assistant wandered around looking for the right leaflet.

**TSB

I tried to push the assistant on whether the bank would let me increase my overdraft in the second and third years but, despite the charm, got little response. He wasn't persuaded by my argument that debt builds up over the course. Nor would he commit the bank to giving me a cheque card, simply telling me to 'Fill in the form, and we'll take it from here.' One feature I did rate was a service enabling parents to bail out their poor offspring in an emergency - by getting cash to them immediately for a train fare, for example. The 3.5 per cent interest rate, if you are lucky enough to be in credit, is one of the best - but there's a very high rate of interest if you go over the pounds 500 overdraft limit without authorisation.

NEXT WEEK: Hand-held vacuum cleaners

(Photograph omitted)

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