Students abandon sex and drugs for mobile phones and laptops

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Whisper it in the campuses, but one of the nation's favourite cliches is about to be overturned. Britain's students have grown up.

A new survey of the lifestyles and spending habits of today's undergraduates uncovers a disturbing picture of sensible, highly organised young people equipped with mobile phones and personal computers. Spurning the grand tradition of student debt, a significant number have no overdraft at all, while their drinking and drug-taking is - they claim - as moderate as their expected starting salaries are ambitious.

The Graduate Consumers study, published today by High Fliers Research, lays to rest the Young Ones image of directionless layabouts living in squalor, rising after midday and subsisting on Pot Noodle.

Appearing on the first day of the National Union of Students' conference in Blackpool, the findings also suggest youthful idealism may no longer drive the generation raised in the Thatcher years. Half plan to be earning pounds 15,000 or more after leaving university this summer, and many plan to celebrate graduation with a foreign holiday and a new car.

The "Class of `97," the survey concludes, are "ambitious, materialistic individuals who are enthusiastic users of the latest technology, expect to travel widely and are strongly influenced by the media."

Researchers interviewing almost 5,000 final-year students in 20 of England's top-ranking "old" universities found one in 10 owned a mobile phone, one in three a personal computer and almost two-thirds had their own hi-fi.

Eschewing the outmoded image of the bicycling student, lovingly preserved by extras in Inspector Morse, one in five finalists owned a car, while another quarter planned to buy one within a year.

As the first generation of young people brought up with a computer in the classroom, students were comfortably at home with the Internet. Three- quarters had used it during their time at university, and approaching half had diligently logged on for academic research purposes. The most popular activity, however, was sending and receiving e-mail - presumably for contacting impoverished friends unable to afford a mobile phone.

For relaxation, three-quarters of students turned daily to television, though broadsheet newspapers were also widely read. But in the bar, moderation prevailed among those with finals exams looming with the average consumption being less than nine pints of lager - still students' favourite tipple - per week. A quarter admitted to taking soft or hard drugs, though an equal number refused to comment.

After their three-year stint living on a grant frozen seven years ago and topped up with loans, students expected to leave university with an average debt of pounds 2,360. More than one in 10 faced debts of pounds 5,000 or more, but a fifth said they would owe nothing at all.

Douglas Trainer, the NUS president, gearing up for a conference with student hardship high on the agenda, would have no truck with the portrayal of undergraduates as a class of high-spending yuppie throwbacks splashing out on hi-tech gadgets. He said: "Statistics from the high-street banks, from the Student Loans Company and from the Government's own income and ex- penditure survey show that students are really struggling. One in three works part-time and is forced to miss lectures and one in four considers dropping out because of hardship."

Danny Douglas, vice-president for further education, said the survey took no account of the growing proportion of mature and part-time students, often taking higher education courses in local colleges. Mobile phones, he acknowledged, were increasingly widely used, but mainly because impoverished students often had no stable accommodation and could not be contacted any other way.

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