Ken Welsby offers advice on how best to protect your possessions at college
Taking out insurance sounds like a chore - but it's essential if you are going to live away from home. After you have opened your bank account it must be the first item on your shopping list - before you actually do any shopping.

Ideally, you should take out insurance before you move in to your rooms, so that your property is protected as you start to unpack. Even if your grant cheque - assuming you get one - hasn't arrived, it's worth making sure that you can afford an insurance policy.

It's also worth taking out insurance cover in advance, so that your belongings will be covered for the journey from home to college or university. And if you haven't seen the accommodation beforehand, you might want to consider leaving expensive items such as a stereo, camera or computers at home until you know how secure your room is.

Whether you are living in a hall of residence or sharing a house or flat off campus, it's worth taking a few minutes to think about security. Keep valuables locked up and out of sight, say crime prevention officers. Most thefts are committed by "sneak thieves" who see the opportunity of an open door and look for items that can be snatched up in seconds.

With this in mind, it's worth looking carefully at the terms of any policy before you sign on the dotted line. Sean Regan of Endsleigh Insurance, points out that many insurers require evidence of "violent or forcible entry" before they will pay claims for theft from student rooms.

"We don't impose this condition because in our experience, about 30 per cent of theft claims are from rooms that were left unlocked, often for just a few minutes," he says.

"It's so easy. Someone knocks on your door and yells that you're wanted on the phone - and what do you do? Dash down the hall to take the call. It only takes a couple of minutes - but that's long enough for someone to sneak in and lift the CD player that you bust a gut to pay for."

Many students buy trunks to transport their belongings to and from home at the start and end of each term - and if there's space to keep this in your room, it can also be used as a strong box for valuable items, particularly if you are going to be away for a few days or a weekend. But engineering student Geoff Wilson from Newcastle has learnt that it's worth making sure that the hinges and hasp are heavy-duty.

"I worked right through the Easter break, and at the start of term I bought a CD mini system for pounds 99 to replace my old trannie," he says. "Since I shared a house with three others, and they often had gangs of visitors, I was always careful to lock it away if I was going away to visit my girlfriend.

"The last weekend of term I went away and didn't get back until the Monday morning. So I went straight in to college and didn't get back to my digs until later. It turned out the others had had 'a bit of a party' on the Saturday, and someone had got into my room and forced open my trunk. Not only had they taken the CD player and a bunch of CDs, but other stuff as well, including a lens for my camera and a leather brief case which an uncle had given me as a present.

"They had just used a knife or a screwdriver or something and literally forced the hasp off its screws. The other guys apologised, of course - they said there was so much noise that they didn't hear a thing - and the insurance say that they will pay up, but that's not the point, is it?"

Endsleigh's student policies start at pounds 26 a year for property worth up to pounds 2,000, or pounds 37 for pounds 4,000 cover. But note that this does not cover computers, for which a separate policy is required, costing a further pounds 58 for systems worth up to pounds 2,000.

These rates are for students living in halls of residence, and apply at any institution anywhere in the country. If you are living in a house or flat off campus, you will almost certainly pay more. Because crime risks vary from area to area, the amount of the premiums will depend on your postcode, on the same lines as normal household insurance.

Endsleigh - in which the National Union of Students has a 14 per cent stake - is the market leader in student insurance, and has branches at many universities.

"If people have any queries about insurance they should just call in and ask," says Sean Regan. "Because we specialise in insurance for students the chances are that we can solve their problems on the spot."

Eagle Star has recently unveiled a new approach to student insurance - adding it on to the parents' policy. For just pounds 25, parents with an Eagle Star Homestar policy can extend it to cover their children's possessions while they are in student accommodation. The premium is the same whether they are in halls of residence or sharing a house. The cover is limited to pounds 500, but as with the Endsleigh policy it does not matter whether entry is forced or not, and the same rate applies anywhere in the country.

Allen Dixon of Eagle Star says: "Parents seeing their teenage children leaving home for the first time have enough to be concerned about without having to worry about their possessions as well ... and insurance is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when students are deciding how to spend their grant or loan."

For those in rented accommodation, it's important to ensure that the policy includes tenant's liability, so that if the furniture or fittings are accidentally damaged, you aren't left to pay the bill. Both Endsleigh and Eagle Star include this kind of cover up to pounds 1,000 - a typical figure.

With the decline in grants, more and more students are forced to rely on financial support from their parents throughout their student years. But what would happen if one of your parents died? The grief would be hard enough to bear but then would come the financial worry: would you be forced to abandon your studies? And if you thought the jobs market for graduates was tough, the opportunities for anyone leaving half way through the course are even harder to find.

The solution is to take out life assurance on the "breadwinner" parent - the one that is providing the financial assistance. This is included in the Endsleigh policy, up to an amount of pounds 5,000.

The other side of the coin is that if you borrow money from your parents, and you die before it is paid back, they could find themselves hard-pressed in later life. If you are concerned that this might be the case, the solution is to take out assurance cover on your own life, with them as the beneficiary.

Jenny Bowden, a media student in Birmingham, has done just that to safeguard a pounds 5,000 interest-free loan from her mother, who is now in her early 50s.

"When we first talked about money, she said that she could lend it to me - provided she got it back by the time she retired at 60," Jane said. "Assuming I get a job when I graduate, it shouldn't be too difficult to pay back at least pounds 1,000 a year. But what would happen if I had an accident? This way she knows that she will be sure to get the money."