Future students may be able to gain financially from carrying out volunteering work during their studies. Chancellor Gordon Brown's pre-Budget report in December 2006 proposed a "new path for entry to university, in which students volunteer in return for a reduction in tuition fees".

While some commentators are sceptical of the Government's promotion of financial incentives for voluntary activity, many have welcomed the proposal; including the National Union of Students, whose education vice-president Wes Streeting commended the Government for recognising that financial barriers may stand in the way of students volunteering.

However, although they might not be benefiting from cash incentives, many current student volunteers are already reaping other rewards from their unpaid work.

At The University of Manchester's careers service, we find that a wide range of graduate recruiters frequently emphasises the benefits of having volunteering experience on your CV.

As corporate social responsibility gains greater prominence, more companies are encouraging their employees to engage in voluntary work. This not only boosts the personal development of staff, but also scores valuable PR points for the organisation.

Consequently, many of today's employers understand the advantages of recruiting graduates who already have voluntary experience. According to a Timebank survey, 73 per cent of employers stated they would prefer to employ someone with voluntary experience than someone without, while 58 per cent thought that voluntary work experience could be considered more valuable than experience gained in paid employment.

Recruiters at The Co-operative Group, for example, believe that volunteering gives candidates a unique set of skills and experience, which cannot be gained or rivalled by work undertaken within the commercial sector. Hannah Slaney, graduate programme manager, claims that candidates who have undertaken volunteer work stand out because "they can demonstrate more easily that they are able to balance priorities, share resources and are willing to work towards the common good of the team, rather than for their own personal gain."

Volunteering may also provide a way into careers within the third sector. Fiona Christie, a careers consultant at The University of Manchester, is researching how charities are responding to increased graduate interest. Traditionally, charities have been fairly inaccessible to new graduates; however, she has found that some now offer structured opportunities that may suit students looking for a way in.

For example, Community Service Volunteers has a full-time volunteering programme, offering a range of four- to 12-month placements nationwide. Participants can gain experience and get a foot in the door, while receiving free accommodation, food and a weekly allowance.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations recently proposed a national graduate scheme for the voluntary sector as a whole.

The University of Manchester runs two projects which encourage students to engage in volunteering. Manchester Student Volunteers links students and postgraduates with volunteering projects in the UK and overseas, while the Manchester Leadership Programme enables students to combine an accredited academic unit with 60 hours of voluntary work in the local community.

Claire Sexton, who graduated with a first-class honours in neuroscience from The University of Manchester in 2006, volunteered at the Stockport Day Centre throughout her degree. Currently a research assistant at New York State Psychiatric Institute, Sexton claims that working with adults with mental health illnesses both aided her academic studies and equipped her with practical examples that she could draw upon at her interview at the Institute - and her ensuing interview at The University of Oxford, where she starts a DPhil later this year.

Enhancing academic studies; encouraging social responsibility; boosting practical skills; facilitating enriching cultural experiences and international travel, and advancing career prospects - it seems volunteering has much to offer students who want to make a difference. And it may even give them a helping hand financially, if Gordon Brown has his way.

Students and graduates interested in volunteering can get further information at The University of Manchester's Kaleidoscope Fair on Thursday 1 March 2007. See www.manchester.ac.uk/careers/events/fairs/kaleidoscope for details.

Andrea Grace Rannard is the Manchester Student Volunteers manager, the University of Manchester's Leadership Programme, Careers & Employability Division