With only two months left to apply for a place at university and college for next year, this is the first in a series of special reports on how to win a place, and what life as a student is like; Tamsin Smith reports on why higher education is so important
Anyone can apply to go to a higher education institution, regardless of age, background, or academic history as many universities and colleges now offer access or foundation courses to help those lacking in qualifications.

The most usual way of entry is to get the right A-level grades in England and Higher exams in Scotland, but it is possible to gain entry with GNVQs and by following an access course which by-passes school qualifications.

If you or your children are about to go to university, if you are considering taking a gap year, or if you have just entered your A-level year and will soon be making a decision about whether to apply to university or college, where to study and which subject, then you cannot afford to miss The Independent on Sunday's "Go Higher" guide.

Jacqueline Henshaw, head of undergraduate recruitment and admissions at the University of Manchester, suggests higher education is a safe stepping stone from adolescence to adulthood, as well as a way to enhance career prospects.

"For most students, university will be the first time they have lived away from home. But they will study in a cushioned, relatively safe environment, which has a great infrastructure of support", she says.

"It means they have time to grow up gradually, develop their personalities and become independent before having to take on the world in the jobs market."

According to student Clare Wright, university is about, "becoming confident and having the best time of your life".

Clare, 22, a psychology graduate from the University of Stirling and current vice-president of student welfare, says: "The most important thing about university is not the qualifications you get, although they are significant, but the social life you have. Joking aside, it's not all about sleeping until lunch time and drinking all night. It's about getting the chance to make friends from all over the country.

"It gives you time to mature and get used to being independent. You can live away from home, you don't have to worry about bills, if you are living in halls of residence, mortgages or jobs and you can pursue any interests you have but may not have had the opportunity to do before."

Bearing that in mind, the UK has 260 universities or colleges offering 40,000 different courses to chose from, based in city, or campus sites around the country.

Though a degree tends to be the most common qualification to study at university, it is also possible to study for an HND - Higher National Diploma, in many subjects, mainly at colleges, although they also offer degree courses. Many HND courses are run alongside degree courses in the same subject areas and it may be possible, at the end of a two year HND course to transfer to the final or second year of a degree course.

A degree requires a higher standard of entry and is more academically orientated, while an HND course tends to have a lower entry level and is more vocational.

"Both qualifications are a detailed and focused programme of study on a subject over three or four years, and both are well received by employers," says Ross Hayman, media relations officer for UCAS, the University and Colleges Admission Service.

"Which one to take depends very much on what you want to achieve at the end of it. If you have your mind set on a job which requires a degree, or if you want to study a subject of general interest to you then a degree course would be more suitable to you.

"If you want to follow a more work-related period of study like business management, information technology or industry and commerce, then perhaps taking an HND would be wiser."

Over the next seven weeks we will publish a complete guide to the higher education system, from how to apply for a place to how to get a job.

There will be in-depth advice on what to expect at university or college, what to do during a gap year, how to cope if you are a mature student, where to look for funding and how to organise your finances.

There will also be features on how to look after yourself while studying, how to live healthily, how to study, who to turn to for help over emotional or academic problems and how to find part-time employment during term time or the holidays.