As 275,000 new students descend next week on Britain's universities, a sizeable number will be forming anxious queues at the offices of their college newspaper or radio station. With more than 200 student media outlets, five times more than a decade ago, working for exotically named titles like Bradford University's Rampage, Exess (Essex) or Hullfire (Hull) has come to replace the gathering of dog results for the Batley News as the would-be reporter's first brush with journalism. Smartly presented CVs, written in journalese, now regularly descend upon the desks of national news editors explaining why they could not survive without the talent so evident in the clutch of cinema reviews enclosed.
The sector's explosive growth has outstripped even that of higher education, but it raises the same sort of questions. Is quality losing out to quantity? How much are the CV points so proudly gained actually worth? Does the student media provide genuinely useful training, or does it simply turn out people with exaggerated ideas of their own importance?
"Student journalists were the bane of my life," says one former news editor on the evening paper of a big university town. "They thought they knew everything but they often turned out to know nothing."
The students, of course, do not share that view. "By the time I go into the media, I'll already have dealt with the problems many people have in their first year on a professional paper," says Ben Oliver, the 21- year-old editor of London Student, the London University paper. "It gives you the chance to do everything - subbing, layout and people management as well as writing - which you simply wouldn't get anywhere else."
"It just lets you find out whether you like journalism and whether you're any good," says Alistair Thomson, editor of Newcastle University's Courier.
The Courier, holder of the Guardian/ National Union of Students award for best college newspaper, and London Student, the winner the year before, are at the top of the student media tree.
Oliver's paper, in particular, impresses with its distinct, alternative agenda married to strong news and investigations. London Student's Roger Cook-style newshounds, complete with hidden tape recorders, last year exposed a crooked student accommodation agent who now faces criminal charges. In Newcastle, the Courier's Mirror-style sensationalism sells 2,500 copies a week during term time, at 25p each - quite an achievement in a sector where free distribution is the norm.
These titles succeed because they do not attempt to be more than student newspapers. But too many other college journalists try unsuccessfully to ape the national papers or music magazines they dream of working on without even a grasp of the basics, let alone the flair and resources that make professional publications successful.
"The standard is so variable," says Suzanne Moore, a Guardian columnist and one of judges for the NUS awards. "They talk too much to each other and string together things from other publications instead of doing the work for themselves. Basic facts can sometimes be horribly wrong."
The spread of desktop publishing means many students now work on exactly the same Quark Xpress software as the pros. But the quality of the journalism has not always kept pace with the striking improvements in design.
The result is a heavy surfeit of vast articles about date rape and the meaning of feminism, followed by ill-advised attempts to shock the reader out of the stupor into which he or she has fallen. One student paper recently had an exclusive interview with God (who met its, wisely anonymous, author in the toilets at Tunbridge Wells station), while another tried to brighten up a rambling piece about the Criminal Justice Bill by comparing Michael Howard to a Nazi.
Sometimes recklessness can shade into something worse. David Blunt, a left-wing student at Cambridge University, found himself the target of a sustained campaign of abuse from Varsity, the student paper, which described him as "David C***, one of the most universally disliked individuals this side of Christendom."
"As far as I know, the people who wrote that had never even met me," he says. "But they had the power to blacken my name in a small, enclosed community without any of the responsibility of professional journalists." The same paper also described a women's college as the "Virgin Megastore" and Christian students as "evil".
Only a very few papers provide their tyro writers with the training that might prevent these sorts of mistakes. Conscious of the gap, the NUS has tried to fill it with an annual media conference and training event, and has also recently launched an NUS/NUJ press card for student journalists. If they want one, they have to sign up to the NUJ's code of conduct.
Restraint can also come in the wrong form with the student media's dependence on funding from college unions making them susceptible to pressure. One northern newspaper's grant was slashed after it exposed the mismanagement of union funds. The future arrival in force of student radio - with a cross-London station planned for 1996 - will shake up the dominant print sector. But with fewer than 40, usually closed-circuit, stations, student broadcasting is still a minor player - and one of such low quality that the NUS award judges refused even to compile a shortlist for last year's prizes in the broadcasting categories.
Student media veterans include most of the staff of Britain's broadsheets (tabloids prefer more traditional candidates), and few regret the experience. "It was fantastic fun, if nothing else, and it was my only calling card into the national media,'' says Jocelyn Targett, editor of the Mail on Sunday's "Night and Day" supplement. But he, like others, would never confuse it with professional work.
"Experience on a student newspaper is a bit like having GCSEs," says Ivo Dawnay, foreign editor of the Sunday Telegraph. "You should certainly have done it, but it doesn't count for very much."Reuse content