Higher Education: Great return on a sound investment

Part 1: What does a degree offer me?
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The Independent Online

The nights are drawing in, the clocks will soon go back and UCAS forms must soon be ready if you want to go to university this time next year.

The nights are drawing in, the clocks will soon go back and UCAS forms must soon be ready if you want to go to university this time next year. Over the next few weeks, the Independent on Sunday will be offering you invaluable practical advice on the whole process in a series of special features.

Next week we will give expert guidance on how to apply, including ideas on standing out from the crowd, particularly if you are applying for a popular course at a popular university. In subsequent weeks we will look at the money involved – tuition fees, living costs and what loans and other forms of assistance are available.

Later we will advise how to improve study skills to maximise your chances of success. The series will also look at graduates career and job prospects, opportunities for mature students and gap years.

A university degree is the best investment you can make in your personal development and job prospects. It is no longer a free ride – tuition fees are currently £1,075 a year and you can expect to have to find £5,000 a year to cover your living costs if you are living away from home. In Scotland you won't pay tuition fees but you will pay a graduate tax of £2,000 when you start earning.

It is true that the average graduate debt is £12,000, but set against the salaries that graduates can expect to earn throughout their working lives the debt doesn't sound so big. Once established in their careers, graduates can expect to earn 76 per cent more than people who left school and went straight into a job.

There are those who through sheer hard work and personality do well in their chosen careers in the first few years only to hit a block on further promotion because they are not graduates. They are then faced with studying part time to get that degree, which takes a very high level of commitment. It is hard enough if they are still single, but if they have settled down and have children, it's tough to juggle a job and a part-time degree. People do, but it is a lot easier when you leave school and have no major commitments.

For most of us, a degree is a quick way of saying this person has spent three or four years studying a subject in depth and has been examined successfully on it. Determination, motivation, application, organisational and analytical skills, time management and team working have all hopefully been learnt along with superior communication skills.

Employers are looking for all these, and although you may have them as a result of 13 years of formal education, there is no quick way to prove it.

Even if careers and money are not of much interest to you, the opportunity of being exposed to new ideas would be a pity to miss. You may still hold the same views on everything when you leave university, but at least you will have heard other people's ideas and tested your own against them – and seen different lifestyles.

The experience can also play a key role in helping you decide what you want to do. How many of you slaving over your A2-levels really know what job you want to do? Some of you will have a very clear vocational route planned, but most tend to follow the routes suggested by careers officers or parents or teachers based on the aptitudes they show at school. But these are the aptitudes of people following a core curriculum. Who knows what you might discover about and within yourself at university?

Steve Bell, 25, is founder of Student Mobiles, an internet-based company which cornered the market in direct selling of mobile phones to students and is now part of the Carphone Warehouse group. He never dreamt he would be doing what he is now while he was in the sixth form at Whickham Comprehensive in Gateshead. There, he was planning on doing an accountancy degree.

"I'd picked accountancy because when I was in the lower sixth I didn't really know what to do and accountancy runs in the family," he says. He had a place at Leeds Met lined up, but he failed his maths A-level and lost it. Through Clearing he got a place at the University of Northumbria doing business studies. "It was a four-year sandwich course and my work placement was with Procter and Gamble. It was there that I became so enthralled with business. I forgot I was student." The rest is history.

For some it's not the course that shows them who they are so much as the experiences of university life itself. Alex Fairweather, 23, is entering the final year of a business management and computing degree at the University of Staffordshire.

Alex had left school with plans to do an HND in computing and to become a computer programmer. That has now all changed after two years as vice-president of the university's Stafford campus.

Alex has now had experience of managing a major organisation within the university and learnt how to conduct himself with senior personnel right up to the university's vice- chancellor. "I've had the kind of control that maybe I would never have had in work. I've jumped a gap," he says.

Alex is no longer clear about what he wants to do when he graduates next summer, but one thing is certain: he knows he doesn't want to work as a computer programmer any more. "I'm interested now in marketing and promotion and human resources," he says. "University has opened everything up for me."

It can do the same for you. Good luck and we hope our series helps you.