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Where February is the new September

Courses beginning in winter offer part-time students and others greater flexibility

The banner headline on the home page of Thames Valley University's website sums up the change succinctly. "For starting university, February is the new September," it says.

The target audience is potential students, who, for one reason or another, are ready to embark on a new course in the middle of winter rather than the traditional autumn date. Known as a second semester start, it's a trend that has taken root firmly at the new universities, and one that reflects universities' need to fit changing lifestyles.

"Some students may choose to enrol in February after taking a six-month gap rather than a whole year gap, while others may prefer to receive their A-Level results before deciding on a course," says Lynn Grimes, director of marketing and recruitment at Thames Valley. The February start may also suit foreign students from countries, such as Australia, whose academic year ends in December rather than July.

What the change also reflects is the ever-increasing variety of qualifications on offer at universities. Among the more than 500 courses available with a February start at Thames Valley are large numbers of professional qualifications, many involving part-time study. Examples include qualifications in breast and cervical screening, safety of domestic gas appliances, and in the traditional building trades. These augment foundation degrees, conventional degrees and postgraduate programmes.

Thames Valley now offers the February start option on 70 per cent of its courses. In most cases, these students join a course one semester (effectively, half an academic year) after the bulk of the cohort, and finish one semester later as well. But in some cases, when demand is high, the university forms a stand-alone February group of students.

For Dingling Zhang, 22, who is in her final year of a BA in travel and tourism management at Thames Valley, the February start was just the ticket. Having completed a tourism diploma in Singapore at the end of 2005, she wanted to get going on her degree as soon as possible. "The February start was perfect for me," she says. "Everyone was welcoming and there were other February joiners, so I wasn't alone."

The University of Bolton has been offering a similar mix of winter starts for about a decade, the only difference being that most courses begin at the end of January rather than early February. "There were two main reasons we began," explains former lecturer Dr Nigel Hill, now Bolton's director of marketing. "We wanted to offer flexibility to part-time students, but we also realised there was a demand from full-time students who had discovered they'd made the wrong choice of degree in September, either at Bolton or elsewhere."

Around 1,800 students started a wide variety of courses at Bolton this time last year, out of a total student population of 11,000. Tracey Fenton, 40, completed a fine arts degree at Bolton last summer, having started in January 2004 for family reasons. "It was easiest for me because my youngest daughter was starting secondary school the previous September and I wanted to be at home during her first few months," she says.

She didn't feel disadvantaged in any way by starting later than her fellow students. "The course was so well run that it was easy for anyone to pick it up at any time, and I made lots of friends, among the students and teachers."

A slightly different model of study for January starters is offered by Middlesex University, where most degree courses are structured in a way that requires students to have acquired knowledge by Christmas to progress with their degrees.

To get over this, students joining an undergraduate course in January follow a separate, intensive programme of study for six months, taking exams in July, and so catching up with those students who began the same course the previous autumn. The two groups then merge and become one cohort at the start of the second year.

Abdulhamid Oun, 27, has just finished an MSc in computer and network security at Middlesex, which he began a year ago. He had arrived in the UK, from Libya, in August 2007, and needed the first few months to get his English up to scratch. "When I began in January I made friends with the students who had started in September, and they helped me with things like how you submit essays," he says, "because they already knew how the course worked. It was brilliant for me."