New Year, New You: Put your green fingers to work

If your life needs enhancing, there are plenty of courses for you

Credit-crunch blues making you think of sharpening up your CV? Or fancy something to hone the mind, spark a new interest, or build on an old one? If you don't want to wait until next September, it's worth thinking of applying to one of the many January- or February-start courses now on offer round the country – take your pick from full, part-time or even home study.

The University of Derby, which now offers around 200 spring starts, says a January course tends to appeal to those already working, who are either looking to improve their job prospects or shift careers, and they often want to study part-time.

Even if you are starting studying in September, says Liz Hagger, a consultant at Domino Careers, signing up for a course through winter and spring gives you a chance to learn new skills such as IT. "If you've had a long gap since previous study, taking a course now will give you practice in the discipline of managing time, taking notes, doing assignments and balancing that with the rest of your life," she says.

And there's a tempting range available, enabling you to convert degrees to change career tack, or upgrade home hobbies into employable skills. Studied for a history degree but have no computer skills? London Metropolitan University offers conversion courses in psychology, law and computing, advertising their computing pre-Masters course starting in February as particularly suitable for those wanting a one-semester bridging programme before starting a Masters. Ugochi Obi, who originally studied biochemistry in Nigeria, was looking for just such a course. "I needed a good university that offered a course that was short and a good foundation for a Masters. The academic experience given by the computing pre-Masters was just awesome," she says.

Foundation degrees, with their emphasis on work-based learning, are useful for those looking for a career change who can't afford the time or money for an undergraduate programme. Birkbeck College in London, well known for its part-time courses, has three foundation degrees starting in January, in science, IT and media and business applications. The college has recently had an increase in applications for postgraduate courses in areas such as management and economics, attributed in part, it believes, to those working in finance wishing to improve their prospects if they find themselves back on the job market.

If you fancy something more leisurely, there's the 20-week Genius of Gardening course at the University of Kent, based at Sissinghurst Castle Garden and running for two hours each Wednesday from 21 January, covering the history of English gardens from Roman times to the early 18th century. If you're more of a practical gardener, look up the professional certificate in gardening starting for the first time this spring at Writtle College in Chelmsford, 40 minutes from London. It's being run by popular demand after requests from students, and all you need to bring along is an enthusiasm for horticulture and a commitment to reading and learning outside of the taught course.

If, however, your skills run to sewing, you could look at two courses. The London College of Fashion starts a course in recycled clothing in March, aimed at those with basic hand- and machine-sewing skills; and another in January in home-sewing and garment-making.

Finally, the National Design Academy, which offers part-time and distance- learning diploma and degree courses in interior design and soft furnishings, is running open days for prospective students in January. The academy offers courses for the inexperienced and those seeking their first qualification (as well as degree courses for the more experienced) either at home with online tutor support, or in its Nottingham studio. For David Young, working part- time in a furniture store, the National Design Academy foundation degree was perfect. "I wanted to go to university to study design, but felt the costs were too high," he says. "I'm delighted with the course, as I have enough time to do the projects and I haven't had to take out a student loan."

Links:

Target Courses: www.targetcourses.co.uk
Prospects: www.prospects.ac.uk
Learndirect: www.learndirect.co.uk
The Open University: www.open.ac.uk
The Open College of the Arts: www.oca-uk.com

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