Universities and higher education institutions have, over many years, established extensive support networks that can give you a safety net without smothering you. It is likely that you will be able to access professional support across a wide variety of areas. The first few weeks are about getting used to independent living. If you're in halls there are usually trained students and staff on hand. Many institutions will have a warden, a peer support network or 24-hour security. This team is tasked with everything from changing light bulbs to dealing with an emergency; the smoke detectors are more than up to the task of detecting the smallest piece of burnt toast at 5am, and it's this team who's business it is to check everyone is safe and sound. They are also there to deal with noise complaints and to offer support if you feel homesick in the first few days.

The Students' Union and the university arrange events for the beginning of term, often around Freshers' Week. Most Students' Unions have sports teams, societies, groups and committees, and the majority of unions will have a Freshers' Fair where all the societies and sports teams will be represented, providing something for everyone.

You might feel a little lost when you first leave home but universities have teams to support those students who are struggling with the transition. Many have professionally trained counsellors and are affiliated to the Association of University and College Counsellors ( www.aucc.uk.com). Their support is confidential so you can tell them anything.

Most universities have advice centres or welfare advisors similar to the Citizens Advice Bureau. They produce fact sheets and provide training sessions about finance, wellbeing and health among other things. They can help with finding a job and advise you on the legality of an employment contract. They can even help you write a letter of complaint to a landlord, though hopefully you won't need to!

Often universities allocate each student a personal tutor: someone with whom they can discuss any problems they might be experiencing, receive academic guidance from and get information on professional support services. Study-skills tutors are invariably on hand too, and they can help students with specific problem areas, such as essay writing.

If you have a disability there are dedicated teams of staff who will work with you either on a one-to-one, daily basis or at regular intervals. If you qualify for support you may receive a Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA), which is used to cover the costs of support assistants working with you, as well as computers and other equipment identified as necessary in an assessment. Universities adapt the way they work so they can support students with disabilities, by offering extra time during examinations for students with dyslexia or specialist study guidance, for example. Skill ( www.skill.org.uk), the charity for disabled students, is also an excellent resource.

Universities often have medical centres or links with local GP practices. Students are a pretty healthy bunch (generally!), but large numbers of young people in close quarters can lead to the odd bout of colds; freshers' flu is a common complaint. If anything more worrying should occur the local Health Protection Agency working with the university will usually step-in. Universities support students looking after themselves and provide information about all forms of illness, so you can get properly clued up.

One of the most significant ways you will get support is from your peers. Friends from university really are friends for life. These bonds are formed during the years together in halls, houses and lecture theatres. If you are worried about leaving home there isn't a better support network for you to take those steps towards independence than that provided by a university.

Stephen McAuliffe is head of student services at the University College for the Creative Arts