Ambassadors, actually

A university has discovered a ready supply of eager sales staff - the students themselves. Diana Hinds reports on the team with the title
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On a snowy tour of Oxford Brookes University, the guide pauses for a moment outside the Helena Kennedy Student Centre to offer her party a useful tip: "You need to regroup to talk, rather than talking down a long line of people." She moves on through the student bars ("remember, the drinks are half price") and circumnavigates a hall of residence ("encourage them to look, but don't let them press their faces up against the windows").

For this is no ordinary campus tour, but a training exercise for Oxford Brookes' six new student "ambassadors". One of their main tasks, as they begin work this term, is to show prospective students and their parents around the university, providing information, answering questions and generally offering a personalised, student's view of the institution. The ambassadors will conduct at least two tours a week, lasting just over an hour, to parties of seven or eight, for which they will get paid pounds 6 a tour.

"We think this is a more intelligent way of getting information about ourselves to the people who want it," says Helen Evans, head of public relations at Oxford Brookes. "Because students have been in this situation, they can put themselves in the place of prospective students perhaps better than a member of staff can."

"Staff do not have the time for this kind of thing, but to meet a real student gives people confidence and a warm feeling about the university," says Sarah Brierley, school and college liaison officer, and an ex-president of the Oxford Brookes student union. "It's about getting a feel for the place."

Oxford Brookes is one of the first British universities to be employing its students in this way, following in the footsteps of American and Canadian universities where such schemes are becoming well established. Others experimenting with ambassadorial schemes in this country include Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam, and the practice seems likely to spread as universities look increasingly for new (and cheaper) ways of publicising themselves.

After visits to Canadian universities, Oxford Brookes began last January with eight unpaid ambassadors; soon realising the scheme's potential - 33 per cent of students who go on tours accept places - the university has expanded it to 12, and the ambassadors are now, if modestly, remunerated.

For pounds 25 a day, they will sometimes attend student recruitment fairs with a member of staff, as well as visit schools and colleges. On occasion, they may also be required to speak to the media, although not on political matters, which are referred first to the students' union. To prepare them, the ambassadors receive a day-and-a-half's training, concentrating on facts and figures, role play, and presentation.

"Ambassadors need to be people with very good communication skills and self-awareness, who can understand what the question is they are being asked, pick up on anxieties, and back up what they say with facts," says Helen Evans.

Enthusiasm about Oxford Brookes is fairly essential, too, but the ambassador's job is not to toe a party line, or to say anything they feel uncomfortable with, "because that will not be credible", she emphasises. And if they don't know the answer to a question, they should simply say so.

Jackie Glass, a 27-year-old PhD student in architecture and one of the first ambassadors, remembers how daunted she felt on arriving at Oxford Brookes for her first degree, the first in her family to have gone to university. "I came very naively, very fearful of such a huge institution, and it would have helped to have been able to talk to a student when I came to look round with my parents. Now I want to be an ambassador because I feel I want to give something back to the university."

Thandi Hove, 21, studying business and law, had enjoyed being a prefect at school in Zimbabwe, and became an ambassador because she wanted to know more about the university. "When you get here, they know about you, but what do you know about them? I didn't want to get involved in the students' union because it's too political, but this is wider."

Peter Grimshaw, 27, left school at 16 and would have missed out on university altogether if his sister had not persuaded him to apply as a mature student. Now doing an MA in social anthropology, he is anxious that others should not miss out. "One of the great things about being an ambassador is that you can put the idea into people's heads that they can go to university," he says.

Not all ambassadorial motives are so altruistic, however. Many of the students are doing courses in business and marketing management, and know this will look good on their CVs, as well as improving their "interpersonal" and presentation skills. Though not a princely sum, the money helps, too, and is better, they say, than working in a pub.

With the confidence of those born to PR, the new ambassadors have few qualms about the job. But there can be tricky moments on the campus tours, say their more experienced colleagues; while prospective students usually only want to know about the night-life, their parents are often more exacting.

"Some parents ask really personal questions," says Catherine Jenkins, studying marketing and publishing, who was once asked whether she had a boyfriend. "I also had a stomach-churning moment when some very protective parents of a Muslim girl said they didn't want their daughter living with men. I just said it could probably be arranged - but I was really afraid I wouldn't answer the question the right way".