Why it pays to start your course early in the year

Enabling students to enrol for courses in January and February gives them more flexibility
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On a cold October night last year, Ana Santos went to an open event at the University of East London. She was interested in studying law. She wanted to know if she could enrol the following February, rather than wait until September and the traditional start of the academic year.

Then things got dramatic. Santos, who was heavily pregnant, went into early labour just as Susan Fitzgerald, registrar for the School of Combined Honours, took to the stage. Later that night, Santos gave birth to twins at a local hospital. Next month, she intends to return to campus, this time as a student doing combined honours in law with human resource management.

Like thousands of other British students, Santos was looking for more flexible ways to learn, including enrolling in the second rather than the first semester.

The academic timetable – with courses traditionally starting in September/October after a long summer break – has never fitted well with the normal world of work. No longer is the student population dominated by full-time 18- to 21-year-olds. Now it's older and with more commitments – whether a part-time job or family responsibilities.

The trend among newer universities to offer second-semester starts is a way to make things more convenient for students, according to Million+, the organisation that represents new universities. "The key thing is access," says chief executive Pam Tatlow. "In the new year especially, many people reconsider what to do with their lives, and in an economic recession, this kind of flexibility is very important."

The University of East London is expecting around 1,200 students to start new courses next month. Postgraduate applications are up 20 per cent on last year, according to Emma Burchfield, head of admissions. Over Christmas, there were 270 online applications.

Vanessa Idada enrolled for her law degree at the University of East London in February 2007. "I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do and by the time I'd made my mind up, it was too late," she explains, "When I called the university they said, 'Sorry, we've just finished September enrolment, but could you come in February?' I didn't have a clue that you could start a degree in February." She will be taking her final exams next January.

January starts particularly appeal to mature students who want to change career or strengthen their CV. Other students take a mini gap-year after summer exams, while some want to wait for their results and take time out to research their options. Another benefit is that second-semester starts often mean applying directly to the university, and not through Ucas.

The second-semester start appeals to overseas students, who are used to an academic year starting in January, or who have problems with arranging a visa for a September start.

Coventry University runs seven undergraduate courses beginning in January, mainly in business, environment and society. It also offers plenty of postgraduate courses, particularly in the faculty of engineering and computing.

Northumbria University offers undergraduate courses with a January and February enrolment. It has 79 postgraduate courses, from analytical chemistry to urban policy. Offering a January intake makes universities better able to compete for the overseas market, explains Craig Mahoney, deputy vice-chancellor (learning and teaching).

Today, London Metropolitan University holds the second of its open events for courses with second-semester enrolment. It offers around 120 undergraduate courses, including accounting, forensic science, journalism and travel management.

It has even more postgraduate courses, many in accounting, international business and economics. There is also an MA in labour and trade-union studies, and a new MA in music-industry management.

Offering a second start time is a way of helping students make higher education fit into their lifestyle, says LMU's press officer, Irene Constantinides. Applications will be accepted until 9 February for those in the UK/EU.

As of last week, applications were up 9 per cent on last year. One reason for this, says Constantinides, is that people want to beat the credit crunch and update their skills to make them more employable in the future. So if that's your aim, you still have a few weeks left to apply.