By convention, university courses start in September - but then who cares about convention. Simon Midgley looks at the attractions of a January start for a growing number of institutions and students.

The majority of students starting full-time, first-degree courses do so in the autumn at the start of what has traditionally been the beginning of the new academic year. However, this picture is starting to change as universities respond to government exhortations to cater for lifelong learning and to widen access to socio-economic groups which have previously been excluded from higher education.

The move towards a modular degree curriculum in many universities, where students can mix and match course segments in non-linear ways, also means that institutions can be more flexible about when they admit students.

Professor John Humphreys, pro vice-chancellor of Greenwich University, says that January course starts for full-time courses are becoming more commonplace.

Increasingly, higher education is not just for 18-year-old school-leavers with A-levels, but is also for people who might have had some time off between school and university, workers seeking to update their skills and job prospects and others seeking a change in career. While many of these mature students study for a degree part-time, an increasing number are enrolling on full-time courses that begin at unconventional times of the year.

As the Government's commitment to widening access and lifelong-learning takes hold, Professor Humphreys says the idea of starting in January will actually gather momentum. "We are beginning to do it now increasingly. It is not as popular by any means as the September start in terms of the absolute numbers who come, but that is because higher education in this country is still focused very much on school-leavers.

"In many universities now there are very significant proportions of people who do not follow the conventional 18-year-old school-leaver with A- levels route, and we welcome them."

At his university there are January and September starts to extended BSc degree programmes in 11 earth and environmental subjects. The extended degree programme is designed to provide entry to science degree pathways for mature or other students from a non-science background. In this four- year, full-time programme, the first year, known as Year 0, is designed to bring students to the requisite level of scientific knowledge and skills for entry to the normal three-year programme. The subjects offered include science, geology, applied geochemistry, engineering geology, environmental geology, environmental sciences, environmental control, geography, remote sensing, geographical information systems and natural resource management. In January, 20 students enrolled on such courses; this coming January, the university has up to 50 places available.

The university also offers February starts in all its land and construction management MScs and in BScs in design and construction management, building surveying, estate management, quantity surveying, housing and environmental health. HND/HNC courses in civil engineering studies also start in February.

One university which has always started its academic year in January is the University of Buckingham, Britain's only private university. Its BSc degrees include economics, economics, languages, law, business studies, international hotel management, marketing with French or Spanish, English language studies with literature, history of art and modern politics. This January the university will admit some 350 undergraduate and postgraduate students, and in July it will admit another 90. Prospective students must apply by 15 December for entry on 19 January. The minimum entry qualifications are three Cs at A-level or their equivalent. Three out of four of its students are from overseas, although there are some 200 Britons. Undergraduate fees are around pounds 10,000 a year. The university's two-year undergraduate degrees involve four terms of study annually. Overseas students particularly are often attracted by the idea of completing their degrees in two rather than three years. Some students in British state universities who discover in the autumn of their first term that they have chosen the wrong course or institution switch to Buckingham in the subsequent January.

The university prides itself on its Oxbridge style of learning, with small tutorial groups, a staff-student ratio of 1:10 and an elaborate student support system.

In business schools, many part-time MBA programmes have evolved with a January start because a lot of the students are company-sponsored and a January start dovetails more easily with the business year. Cranfield School of Management, for example, offers two-year part-time Executive MBA and Public Sector MBA courses.

Leo Murray, the school's director, says that part-time MBAs are typically the way business schools sustain the high quality offered by full-time programmes while making courses more accessible to working managers. "People come here every fortnight for a Friday and a Saturday," he says. "That means they get fully away from their place of work and can really concentrate on learning and interacting with other people, which is very difficult to do on an evening basis or after a hard day's work."

It ensures that managers on part-time courses are able to rub shoulders with experienced professionals from a wide range of good-quality companies and from the higher echelons of the Civil Service and public sector. Students on both courses use portable computers to link up with faculty and fellow students while away from Cranfield.

Cranfield also offers a part-time MSc in project management to the engineering construction industry and a part-time MSc in distribution and logistics which attracts students from all over the world.

Other business schools with part-time MBAs starting in January include Aston, the London Business School, Nene College, Southampton University School of Management, the University of Sunderland and Manchester Business School. A full- or part- time MSc in industrial computing systems also starts in January at Nottingham Trent University.

Warwick Business School is currently considering applications for January entry to its distance-learning MBA. This enables managers to study for an MBA in their spare time irrespective of where they live.

The University of Newcastle Upon Tyne's innovative part-time Rolls Royce Consortium MBA programme for companies and individuals in industrial markets starts this January. This develops managers competing in rapidly changing international markets and focuses on winning profits in challenging and complex circumstances.

The University of Brighton is also offering students a rare chance to enroll on a full-time MBA course at the start of the year rather than in the autumn. The course starts in February for the first time next year (1998).