During July and August you can take courses that prepare you for life at university

The dreaming spires are best enjoyed in the summer, when sunshine and Pimm's enliven even the bleakest campus. And while the students slack off for the summer, there is a chance for some real work to be done.

Universities across the UK, from Cambridge to Stirling, have set up summer schools. Starting at a little over £100 and rising to around £800 a week, summer school courses are often more expensive than term-time evening classes. But the intensity of study, small class sizes and the chance to get a taste of student life make them more than worth it, particularly for those who want to go on to full-time education.

Middlesex University's summer school, which runs from 4 July to 10 August, is the UK's largest. Now in its 10th year, there are 130 courses on offer across 28 subject areas, from the arts to computing. New courses this year include "Having Fun with Robots" and "Writing About Sex".

Pema Varella, 33, has been attending summer schools at Middlesex for two years. She first went for fun, doing a course in sustainable living, but stayed to study video. She is now enrolled on a multimedia HND at Barnet College.

Dissatisfied with part-time courses, she could not get on a full-time course because her South American qualifications were not recognised in the UK.

"It was a beautiful course," she says. "Over only 10 days we learned everything involved in making a documentary, and made two little documentaries. I couldn't have gone to Barnet College if it wasn't for these courses. They gave me the foundation and the confidence I needed to get into full time education."

Summer schools are a taste of university, a chance for people to see if they can succeed at university, says David Westley, head of psychology at Middlesex, who teaches some of the two-week courses on offer. Although you need to show some ability to get on the courses, he says, no formal qualifications are necessary.

"You get a real mixture of people on the courses. Last year we had people who were 18 and people in their 50s."

Kate Kolesnik, 21, is now a first-year psychology student at Middlesex. She came to the UK as an au pair, but soon realised that she wanted to study. "I was a bit scared at the beginning," she says. "But summer schools made me believe that university is for everyone."

Last summer Ayumi Onashi, 20, did a 10-week English course at Oxford Brookes University, where she is a student.

"It was very good," she says. "I wanted to check my English knowledge, and the teachers there have experience as examiners, so they know how to help you get good marks."

Elsewhere, programmes are being introduced to engage children as young as 11, as at the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education .

"It's aimed at those children who have the potential to go on to further education, but for some reason might not do," says Sarah Lines, a teacher at Bryn Alyn school in Wrexham. "It gives them a chance."

"I am looking forward to it," says Anin Fenek, 13. "I think they're going to make us work a bit hard, but I don't mind. I want to go to university when I'm older and study... what do you call it? Searching in the sea for new animals."

With a day in the science discovery centre on the NEWI campus he will be able to flex those promising marine biology brain cells.

While students laze away the summer, others are eyeing their places with envy. So whether you are into sex or robots, psychology or marine biology, this summer is the time to start looking.