The last year has seen a rise in courses which start in January or February with the second semester. According to figures released by UCAS exclusively to the Independent, there has been an increase of 0.8 per cent in the numbers signing up for second semester starts as workers lose their jobs and students seek to defer entry into the jobs market.
Take Neil Choudhary. When he was made redundant from his job as an IT manager for a financial services hedge fund at the start of the crash in 2008, he – like many others – just missed the entry deadline in the new academic year. After hearing about a February start at Kingston University London he decided to use his redundancy package to take up their MBA in business administration.
"Spending a year developing yourself when the country's in recession is a good time to do it," says Choudhary. "My reasons for starting in February were to do with my circumstances, but I never would have gained exposure to other areas of management if I'd stayed in my job. Quite a few people on my course were in a similar position."
Although only a minority of institutions offer second semester starts, Kingston is one of a number that are still recruiting for places starting between January and March this year. For those looking for a way to reinvent themselves in the new year, places are available at London South Bank, Coventry, Buckingham, Oxford Brookes and London Metropolitan universities. Nursing training at South Bank still has half of its undergraduate places to fill before teaching begins in March.
"Second semester starts offer students convenience and flexibility. It's about matching the market," says Professor Tony Sims, course director for Kingston University's full-time MBA in business administration, "Ironically those who start later may have better access to resources. Universities can be very busy and resources can be pushed, but starting in February can mean more attention from academics."
Although only 5 per cent of Kingston's students begin their courses in February –with the vast majority of places taken up for postgraduate courses in business and law – other universities are operating on a bigger scale. London Metropolitan University offers some 900 second semester starts to students taking a wide variety of postgraduate and undergraduate courses, particularly in the most popular subjects, which include dietetics, business and digital media.
"The majority of our UK market is after career change, but we've been given an extra push by the recession," says the director of student recruitment Mark Bickerton. He added: "Students who have a degree but don't have a job are being funded by their parents to do an MBA – they think at least they'll be doing something. We're also right next door to Lehman Brothers, so after it collapsed we got a few phone calls."
According to Bickerton, the January start offers students a whole range of benefits. There's often less competition for places than in the traditional academic year, and the flexibility to start in February often fits around changes in personal circumstances – sickness or family issues – which would otherwise hold students back.
"Students starting in February are often more committed because they've had more of a chance to think about what they want to do," he says. "UCAS puts a huge amount of pressure on students to make a decision before September, but waiting a few extra months often produces a more considered decision."
Of course, the benefits of second semester starts aren't just felt by students. They also allow universities to create more spaces on their popular courses, and keep less popular courses open by topping up the numbers half way through. And two intakes a year means that universities – often anxious for extra funding – can squeeze more fees out of the same student base.