Go Higher: Getting on track for student life

Charting a smooth passage through the baffling array of courses now available from universities and colleges isn't easy, but it's important to choose a subject you think you'll enjoy.
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The Independent Online
It's the beginning of another autumn term. The days are getting shorter and this year's upper sixth year are thinking about starting to fill in forms for university and college entrance. Over the next eight weeks the Independent on Sunday will be publishing a guide to how people can gain entry to higher education.

The guide will cover how to get the grades you need for a degree, how to choose the right course and the right institution - and how to complete the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) form. It will address the cost of higher education and suggest how to live on a student budget as well what skills you need to survive at university or college. And it will look at what to do during a gap year before you start your degree and how to apply for jobs once you have your degree. There will also be a supplement on how to cope if you are a mature student.

Higher education is becoming increasingly important to more and more people. That is why one-third of school-leavers now go to college or university. A degree is likely to open many doors and give you opportunities for work and what to do in your leisure time which otherwise you might not have. It should also greatly enhance your earning capacity. Also - sometimes accidentally - it might point you in career directions you have not considered before. Jobs which used to be filled by non-graduates are now being filled by graduates. That way the country benefits because previously non-graduate jobs are being filled by people with better skills.

When you study the reference books and guides to higher education, you will see there is enormous variety: old universities with traditional degree courses, and new universities and colleges of higher education offering newer courses in such subjects as tourism, leisure and media studies. One reason for the explosion in these new courses is that the tourism and leisure industries have mushroomed in recent years, says Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS.

"To answer people who say we don't need graduates to fill jobs in these industries, you have to say that we are trying to improve the skills base of the country," adds Higgins.

Most courses in higher education lead to a degree or a Higher National Diploma; for either of those you need to choose a subject. That is not easy because there are so many. The Big Official UCAS Guide to University and College Entrance lists a staggering 30,000 courses available at universities and colleges of higher and further education. Before you even think about filling in your UCAS form it's a good idea to have a look at this 1,000- page tome and the relevant prospectuses.

You have two main options: you can either choose a course similar, or the same as, one or more of your A-level subjects, or related to an interest you have outside school, which could be anything from anthropology to zoology; or you can choose a vocational subject which will prepare you for a career, such as medicine, veterinary science, architecture or engineering. Nowadays more and more careers require you to have a degree. They include teaching, nursing, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and radiography.

If you choose to study one of your A-level subjects for a degree or diploma, you are on reasonably safe ground because you know what the subject involves. The important thing is to study a subject you enjoy.

"Ask yourself when it was you last did something well that you didn't enjoy," says Tony Higgins. "Go and enjoy what you want to do. Don't get pushed around by your mother and father."

Don't worry too much either about the long-term career prospects of studying a subject you love such as English, history or classics. A degree isn't necessarily a training for a job. For example, English and history graduates can end up as successful lawyers after taking law conversion courses. And, says Tony Higgins, the BBC is keen to hire arts graduates for engineering jobs because they have good analytical and communication skills. Once hired, they are given training in engineering by the Corporation. And graduates of Latin and Greek make good computer programmers because those ancient languages use similar rules to computer languages.

Another thing to consider is the type of course you want to follow. Some subjects are offered as single honours degrees, others as joint honours or combined degrees containing one to four subjects, and others as major- minor degrees (75 and 25 per cent of each subject respectively). Most universities and colleges now allow you to choose modules in different subjects, assessing you after the completion of each module.

The second question is to think about where you want to study. You will have to decide which you prefer - a campus university located outside a provincial town or a big city establishment. Some students like the idea of studying in London because there is so much going on and they manage the cost by taking on part-time work. Others run a mile from doing a degree in a big city like London precisely because of the cost and the lack of a sense of being part of a community.

It's important to visit the universities or colleges you are considering to try to find out the character of each institution. Talk to the students and the staff. You need to like the people with whom you will be spending the next three or four years.

One thing that has changed in recent years is that tuition fees of up to pounds 1,025 a year have been introduced. However, one-third of students pay nothing towards tuition and another one-third pay something on a sliding scale. More serious is the abolition of the student grant which means students have to rely on loans for help with living expenses. A future supplement will offer help on budgeting for university and college.

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