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Now I've dropped off the end of this education conveyor belt into complete nothingness . . .

IN THE recent film Slacker, a group of new graduates from a Texas college stumble through empty lives, drink too much coffee and try to avoid thinking about what to do now they are no longer students. Instead they hang about the town where they studied, living as though they are still students but spared the tiresome business of studying.

In West Yorkshire their counterparts are known as Leeds Lifers: ex-students who choose to be unemployed there rather than where their parents live.

Lily Hyde, Lara Gisborne and Matthew McIntyre, who graduated last June, do not want to become Leeds Lifers. But staying on in the city has its attractions. The local economy is built around people with little spare cash; they can use the students' union; and there is the comfort of friends still at the university.

Unlike the unambitious graduates in Slacker, however, their empty days have been caused by a genuine lack of jobs. When the three applied to Leeds University to study English in 1987 and 1988, all expected great things. Companies were competing for new graduates, writing them 'golden hello' cheques for pounds 3,000.

But the climate changed while they were studying. Despite their upper-second-class degrees, all are still unemployed.

Sitting in the university union's coffee bar, Matthew and Lily stared into their cups and admitted they had not really thought what would happen when they finished their degrees; being at university was an end in itself.

'I certainly never thought I'd be on the dole,' said Lily. 'Not for any period of time, anyway,' added Matthew. 'In the first year I knew graduates who were on the dole. I assumed it was because they were deciding what to do next, not because they couldn't get a job.'

Their experience, they say, is typical of most of their friends. Both have been looking for jobs to apply for but could find nothing that appealed to them. Lily wants to do something in the theatre; Matthew, to be a writer.

'I have always wanted to be a writer but I've always expected I would have to find another way to earn a living while I did it,' Matthew said. 'But I can't even get that, so, for the moment, I'm gaining experience as a writer here in the student's union by working with the theatre group.'

Lily is equally gloomy: 'If you want a pretend job like working as a telephonist for First Direct (the telephone bank based in Leeds) they just aren't there,' she said. 'There's even a waiting list

for working at Waterstone's bookshop.'

The greatest problem, they say, is filling their days. Matthew said: 'With no structure in my life save signing on I've basically latched on to a structure here in the union.' Lily also has turned to the union, reviewing theatre for the student paper. Both are concerned not to spend too much time around the union. 'It would be like trying to re-create your student days,' said Matthew.

Lara Gisborne actively avoids going to the university, preferring the terrace house she shares with other graduates in student bedsit land. 'It really would be too depressing to be around all those students,' she says. She, too, has a grand ambition: she wants to be a folksinger. However, a stable job, she says, would be damn useful. She can find nothing.

'I do feel let down by the system. I've been on this education conveyor belt, done everything that was expected of me. And now I've dropped off the end into complete nothingness.'

She spends her time trying to get gigs while taking courses in computing and massage. Only one of her friends has got a job she wanted - a star pupil with academic awards and glowing references who landed a place on the management trainee scheme with Cadbury's.

All three have been under pressure from their parents, who, they say, couldn't believe how tough the situation was. 'My dad only realised how bad the recession was when he was made redundant,' said Lily.

Richard Siddall, director of the university's career service, says that students are setting their sights too high. 'There is no doubt that the situation is appalling,' he says. 'Probably the worst anyone in the field can remember. But the fact remains that there are jobs for graduates: they may not be exactly what they are looking for, but they are a start. Unfortunately, I do think there is an element of defeatism creeping in.'

To an extent, these three unemployed graduates agree. They do have high expectations. But if they can't have high expectations, who can?