11/09/2012 19:09 BST | Updated 11/11/2012 05:12 GMT

Changing the Tuition Fee Debate: How to Make the Most of an Expensive Degree

As freshers' week approaches students are likely to have others things on their mind besides tuition fees. Yet undergraduates embarking on a degree this academic year in England and Wales (as well as "rest of UK" students going to Scottish universities) will be obliged to take on an unprecedented amount of debt. Most of this will be used to pay tuition fees averaging around ₤8500 per year of study. This policy has sparked uproar but the political controversy risks obscuring a more practical question: how can today's freshers make the most of the costly education they will receive?

For the majority of students - especially first generation, mature, and EU students - navigating the British university system requires an adjustment period. Yet here is little time to waste given how hectic the first year is bound to be. It is indeed a tall order to learn the ropes when confronted by the pressures of studying, working to finance university, and finding one's feet in a new environment. So here are five insider tips for succeeding and getting value for money.

Discover your strengths.

Good at writing essays? Get even better by studying models of style (think George Orwell) and find opportunities to do more writing (blogs, student journalism and the like). Good at group work? Find out which modules incorporate this into their assessment. Good at independent research? Identify the possibilities for writing an extended essay; better still is a dissertation or individual project work - something you can always enquire about even if it is not mentioned in the course guide.

Identify your weaknesses.

A good university education normally reveals which skills you need to improve but learn to respond to the signals. A tutor makes a negative comment on your written English? Seek out what services your university offers for improving writing skills. Not saying much in a tutorial? Prepare in advance a question or point of clarification as you engage with the readings or problem sets. Worried about group work? Participate in leadership activities on campus to improve your confidence when dealing with people, especially teaching staff. Even a detail like your handwriting can matter a great deal when exam scripts are still done by hand.

Make contact.

Never underestimate the value of being fully engaged in academic life. Of course, this means attending lectures and tutorials, but do not neglect turning up for office hours and guest talks. Universities offer a plethora of talks and public events. These are great opportunities for introducing yourself and asking a guest speaker about internships or study opportunities at their institution. To make the most of feedback hours come prepared about what you want to ask and also take notes. Showing your face and making contact with teaching staff is an excellent way to get their opinion on your strengths and weaknesses. The more self-aware you are about your work and what you want from your feedback the better that feedback will be.

Understand your discipline.

Essentially this means thinking like an academic, whereby individual modules fit into a broader disciplinary whole. A degree offers grounding in a particular subject, with courses linked together by common theories, questions, and methods of study. Learn to identify the fundamental questions, scholarly debates over which methods to use, and clashes between competing explanations. All of these are likely to crop up in different contexts so it pays to invest time in understanding the linkages between topics across your discipline and why sub-disciplines have emerged.

Link your curriculum to what might come next. A degree is soon completed so consider what your profile will look like by the end of it. Things that always stand out (on paper as well as in interviews) include studying abroad, learning another language, providing research assistance on a project, conducting independent research, and winning a prize or grant. Of course, university is not an Alice in Wonderland place where everyone must have a prize. Be alert though to opportunities for distinguishing yourself and ensure you have a good rapport with potential referees in order to be able to move quickly when something comes up.

With increased fees now a reality, it is necessary to change the terms of the debate by looking beyond whether this is the right funding model. Students being charged these amounts need to know how to make the most of an expensive degree. Equipped with this knowledge, students can not only perform at their best but also shakeup higher education by insisting universities do more to support their learning.