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Could poverty lead students to prostitution and drug dealing?

WHEN I was a student back in the mid- Seventies, I was so poor that I could not even afford to buy my own cocaine. This wasn't a great tragedy because I was too scared to take cocaine anyway (it rots the nose off, apparently), so instead I smoked other people's cannabis and cultivated an ability to get very drunk on two rum and cokes.

Despite these cost-cutting strategies I was very hard up. Each day I calculated whether or not I had enough money for the return bus fare between digs and college, a packet of ten Park Drive, a cream cheese sandwich, a cup of coffee and two games of table football. Sometimes I didn't. For six months I wore someone else's clothes, including, on a couple of not- to-be-forgotten occasions, their underpants.

I shan't say I was happy but, whatever my tribulations, they seem to have been minor when compared to those of students today. In the last few weeks the new president of the National Union of Students (a post I filled in 1980) has talked of students who are so poor that they are actually suffering from malnutrition. Well, we didn't have that in my day.

Nor did many of my generation work our passage through college. Yet, in 1996 an NUS survey claimed that "many students are forced to skip lectures and miss essay deadlines to spend more and more time working in pubs, burger bars, shops and factories". My generation of students had no such excuses for missing lectures and deadlines. No such excuses, but we still missed them.

The terrible consequences of this modern impoverishment seemed to be on display this week at Isleworth Crown Court. Ms Hannah Thompson, a Young Musician of The Year semi-finalist in 1992, is on trial for smuggling half a million quid's worth of Brazilian cocaine into Britain. According to one account yesterday Ms Thompson, a violinist, apparently took to drug-smuggling "after drink and drugs shattered her self-esteem, and crippling student loans meant she could not even afford to repair her recording equipment".

Now, I have no wish to quarrel with this report, though a pedant might point out that loans don't cripple - it's debts that cripple. But be that as it may, the case suddenly reminded me of a BBC news item that I'd seen at the weekend, in which award-winning reporter Sue Lloyd Roberts had been investigating the phenomenon of student prostitution. Ms Lloyd Roberts (most famous for her undercover work in China) discovered a young student woman with a fuzzy face, down to her bra in a semi somewhere in the Home Counties, and a fuzzy student boy who rented himself out a pounds 150 a throw. (Well, maybe not a throw.) The suggestion was clear, student financial hardship was leading more of our bright young things to take part in the sex industry.

Further evidence for this includes revelations about the student daughter of a politician, and a report of the establishment of a student male escort agency, being set up by a graduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge. The student newspaper of the University of London, London Student, agrees with this proposition, arguing that "the increasing media profile of prostitution amongst students indicates that this is a method of paying for university education that is becoming more attractive to students as a supplement to their diminishing grant".

So there we have it - malnutrition, drug-smuggling and prostitution - and all as the consequence of inadequate student grants and loans. And, presumably, there but for the Grace of God go I. Had I studied a couple of decades later, then perhaps I too might be sticking up cards in phone boxes advertising the exotic services of Slim Dave, or running round London with my turn-ups full of pills, powders and resins.

All right, I'm sceptical. Not about whether students are poor - I'm sure that many are. The fact that union bars do great business and that college car-parks are full of shiny little sportsters tells you only that those youngsters with rich parents are often doing better than ever before. But tell me, are the poor ones so very much poorer than the poor ones 20 years ago?

In those days part-time work was less of an option. There was no culture of it, especially after the tradition of helping out with the Christmas post was abolished in the early Seventies. We had weeny grants and went into debt with the bank. Now they have weeny grants-plus-loans and go into debt with the bank. Allowing for all sources of finance (including McJobs), there is little evidence that student living standards have declined markedly in absolute terms.

But other things may have changed. The first is that I cost almost nothing to clothe when I was 20, and my chattels were minimal. No Walkpersons, no telly, no CD player (just an old deck), no trainers, no labels, no foreign holidays, no car. And most of my contemporaries had none of these things either. And we did not go on the game.

Or so I assumed. But then a friend told me of a meeting with a woman who had been a student at the same time as me, up in Scotland. And she had combined a philosophy degree, with a highly remunerative sideline in escorting businessmen to clubs and hotel rooms. From Heidegger to Hello Dearie.

So, if we are hearing more about it now, it may not be solely the result of hardship. Part of it could be because we are more aware than we used to be of how easily money can be earned this way. Significantly, at the end of Sue Lloyd Robert's report, she revealed that her semi girl was now considering giving up her university course altogether, so lucrative was it being a high-class call-girl.

And part of it could also be that this has always been going on, it's just that - in those days - no one would have owned up to it. Whereas, in these up-front days, if you don't flaunt it, it's usually because you don't have it.