The start of something new

With modular courses changing the face of undergraduate teaching, more and more universities are taking the opportunity to throw off the shackles of the traditional academic year, says Jim Kelly
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The Independent Online

The origins of the academic year lie in the medieval world, when the life of the scholar had to match the rhythm of the seasons. But unlike the calendar year, the church year and the financial year, it is a framework which is being increasingly challenged as more universities start undergraduate degrees in January and February.

The origins of the academic year lie in the medieval world, when the life of the scholar had to match the rhythm of the seasons. But unlike the calendar year, the church year and the financial year, it is a framework which is being increasingly challenged as more universities start undergraduate degrees in January and February.

Five years ago, about 6,000 students began their first degrees after Christmas instead of in the autumn, whereas in 2003 the numbers had risen to more than 7,000. More of these courses are coming onto the market, and 120 institutions can offer this option - out of a total of 170, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Most large-scale courses are, however, limited to the new university sector. "I think that this shows how universities are becoming increasingly customer-oriented, and making changes to accommodate demand," says Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

But what demand? Coventry University is experimenting with the new point of entry, and 80-90 students started in January and February for the first time. "It is possible that some students make the wrong first choice of university - and perhaps decide, for example, they want to be nearer home," says Katie Beales, a spokeswoman. Another pitfall awaiting students is the gap year, which can turn out to be a waste of time. "It could be that some students get started and then just think it's time to move forward quickly - this way they don't have to wait for the next academic year," says Patrick Wilson, for the University of East London.

The range of courses on offer varies. UEL offers almost all its courses as a January or February start, while Coventry is concentrating on a smaller range including performing arts; business management; engineering; computer science; information, culture and media; and business and IT.

UEL believes start-date flexibility is important in offering opportunities to mature students, who may need to switch out of employment on a full or part-time basis. It also wants to reach out to those from home backgrounds not attuned to the ritual timetable of university applications. Widening access to such students, often poor or disadvantaged, is a key part of UEL's mission. "It may be that a student may not have applied to university, or sat out clearing because they are not clear what to do," says Mr Wilson.

The other big market is overseas students. The southern hemisphere is largely free of the mismatch between the academic and calendar years, so for many the January or February start date is ideal. Of UEL's 800-strong entry this year, 500 were from abroad.

But how is it that universities are now able to accommodate large numbers of undergraduates outside the academic year? Several factors are at work, but perhaps the most significant is the changing nature of teaching patterns. "This is a reflection of the increasing modularity of courses, which make it easier pedagogically to do this," says Mr Bekhradnia. Universities fit the new entrants into courses in varying ways. Coventry, for example, has a compact intensive timetable which brings new entrants up to speed so they can merge with the mainstream. UEL runs courses which put some students in separate streams, some sharing the same modules, and - in the popular law department, for example - a combination of both.

So is the stranglehold of the academic year about to weaken? At one time it was suggested that all admissions should be in January to allow students to apply for places with their actual exam grades, not just predicted grades. But the inquiry into the exam system led by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, has set the stage for a shorter school term ahead of exams to solve the problem. Universities had anyway baulked at the cost of a "barren" term if they went for a wholesale switch to February entry. But courses starting in the New Year are still set to expand in the future. Overseas students represent a big financial bonus for UK universities in the age of the global higher education market.

Most important, the clear benefits the system has for mature students and those from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds mean such courses will offer universities a chance to widen access, meet regulatory targets, and secure the freedom to vary fees in the emerging student market.

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