Begin the new year on a positive note by enrolling in January or February

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The Independent Online

There are many reasons for beginning a university course in the new year, such as deciding to stay in education too late to apply through UCAS or seeking a fresh start after redundancy.

But the decision for mother of two Sarah O'Donoghue, 27, was prompted by a more practical consideration – she wanted to get the expense of Christmas out of the way before becoming a student. "I was working as a childminder and had the option of getting in through clearing for September but decided it made more sense financially to keep working until Christmas as I have a mortgage to pay and didn't want to be struggling at that time of year," she says.

Now in the second year of a degree in photography and digital imaging at Thames Valley University, she says she found it really easy to settle into university life mid-year and make friends quickly.

Thames Valley is one of an increasing number of universities providing more flexible start dates to capture the enthusiasm of people who don't want to wait another year or mature students whose lives are not governed by the September to July regime.

The university, which has campuses in Reading, Slough and west London, offers more than 100 bachelor degrees, postgraduate qualifications, short courses and professional development diplomas – all starting in February. Subjects range from a BA in advertising, computing science or event management to BScs in nutritional therapy or forensic science. Thames Valley's London College of Music also offers full or part time music degrees starting in February.

Sandra John is another student who was grateful for a second semester start. She enrolled at London Metropolitan University in February 2006 and graduated last year with a BSc in multimedia. "I'd been having problems at work and I wanted to turn that negative into a positive. I always wanted to go to university but was too scared to actually do it," she says.

"I was worried that if I left it any longer I would lose my bottle and end up not going at all. London Met offered a great course beginning in January. Now my confidence has grown and I have re-entered the jobs market with many new skills."

Wendy Jones, London Met's assistant registrar, says the university receives more than 6,500 applications for February starts. "It's a mix of home, EU and international students. They are a big part of the university and we run a welcome week for them and a freshers fair as we do for new students in the autumn," she says.

Second-semester students are not disadvantaged when they apply for funding and the university runs two house-hunting events for February starters, she says.

The appetite for law courses has continued despite the recession and for two years the City Law School has been running two intakes to its conversion course aimed at Bar Vocational Course students training to be barristers who want to convert to Master of Laws, the postgraduate law degree. The school , which is part of City University, says the size of intake is similar in both July and December.

Many part-time courses at City enable people in full-time jobs to join at various points in the year, such as the MSc in energy, environmental technology and economics which is organised into modules of three consecutive day courses each month.

One of the biggest providers of second semester starts in the north east is Teesside University. Courses in health and social care are particularly popular, according to Pat White, the deputy director of marketing and student recruitment. Advanced diplomas in adult nursing are the most sought after followed by child nursing and mental health. The advantage to students of the three-year advanced diploma is that they can get NHS bursaries that are not available for Bachelor's degrees in nursing.

Recent graduate Sarah Phoenix moved from another university to complete her sociology degree at Teesside. After graduating last summer she worked in a local nursing home and decided to train to work in health care. Rather than wait for next autumn she enrolled on a second semester Masters degree in occupational therapy.

Teesside also seeks to bring people into higher education through its "Spring university" in March offering a wide range of six- to eight-week taster courses. "It's important that we attract students who would not automatically think higher education was for them and flexible start times are attractive," says Ms White.