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Is this the end for the 'academic year'?

Steve McCormack discovers why more and more universities are offering second-semester starts to students

In the past few years, something of a silent revolution has been taking place on the university landscape. It is dramatically reshaping the long-established year-on-year pattern of degree courses that start in the autumn and finish three years later in the summer.

This revolution is the phenomenon known as the January (or second semester) start, and a growing number of universities offer this option on a large slice of degree courses.

Browse around university websites right now and you'll find plenty of examples of courses recruiting for a start at the end of this month or in early February. The practice is particularly common among the so-called new universities: former polytechnics and colleges granted university status two decades ago.

For example, an eye-catching, multi-coloured box on the home page of Bolton University's website exhorts readers to "Do Great Things Now" and start a course in January.

Dig a little deeper and you'll find a long list of the university's departments where degree courses at all levels can be embarked upon within the next few weeks. To take just three out of scores of diverse examples, students can start a BA in film and media studies, a BA in regeneration and sustainable communities, or a BSc in mathematics. In total, there are 140 places on Bolton's full-time degrees starting in the first week of February, and around 1,000 places on part-time courses, including plenty of programmes short of a full degree such as foundation degrees in health and social care and HNDs in computing.

In marketing these winter-starts, particularly full-time degree courses, Bolton is hoping students will see themselves as gaining an advantage over their contemporaries who are aiming for university entrance in autumn this year.

"Some of our applicants have lost jobs in the past month and want to start a degree quickly, rather than wait for the mad scramble in September," says Nigel Hill, director of marketing at Bolton.

He points out that these students won't in any way feel "behind" students who began last autumn, largely because they are on modular courses in which each module is self-contained.

"They are not expected to catch up on what they have missed," says Hill. "They go through the modules in a sensible order and, assuming they pass everything along the way, finish in February in three years' time."

Many of the courses recruiting for January/February starts are for vocational areas, in particularly nursing degrees, which can be followed at several universities including Thames Valley, Sheffield Hallam, and West of Scotland. These are popular among the growing number of applicants in their late twenties and thirties, who are no longer locked into the traditional academic year milestones.

But several other factors contribute to the growing popularity of a winter start. More students want to have their A-Level results before applying to university; some want to transfer from a course that started in October but hasn't quite worked out; and some want to start a course fitting in with a six-month break rather than a full gap year. A large proportion of winter start places go to overseas students, particularly those from countries where the academic year runs from January to December, a prominent example being Australia.

Students from abroad make up a large slice of the 700 or so joining winter start courses at Middlesex University, based mainly in the departments of business and engineering and information sciences.

"The delayed start is attractive to our overseas students for two main reasons," explains Margaret House, deputy vice-chancellor at Middlesex. "Firstly they may have had problems getting visas in time for a start in the preceding September; and secondly because it, in effect, saves them half a year's living costs."

This is a real saving because, unlike at other universities, winter start students at Middlesex complete their degrees in two and a half years rather than the normal three. This is made possible through an accelerated course for the first half year, which, by the autumn of the same year, brings them to the same place as their peers who began five months before them.

But if you fancy starting an undergraduate course in the next two or three weeks, act fast. Places are filling up fast, competition is keen and, although the range of options is immense, some courses are recruiting relatively small numbers. So, before submitting an application for a specific course, it would be wise to ask the university if places are still open.