Given that the UK's higher education population is no longer the sole preserve of fresh-faced 18-year-olds straight out of school, the university year's traditional September start date has lost much of its meaning. There are increasing numbers of students who want to embark on their higher education career, well, when they want to, rather than waiting for September to roll around - and universities are responding to this demand.
January start dates (induction usually takes place at the end of the month with teaching getting under way in February) are particularly popular with overseas students. They attract large numbers of international postgraduates, as well as undergraduates from southern hemisphere countries such as Australia that follow a different academic cycle to the UK's.
Many postgraduate courses get under way in the new year; sometimes this is the result of historical accident, sometimes to meet demand. At De Montfort University, for example, the MA in sports history and culture has intakes in September and January; for the MA in fine art it is September and February.
Mature students, who are not locked into the school exam cycle, also make up part of the January cohort. "For people who have been working or out of education, there's nothing special about September," says Mark Bickerton, director of student recruitment at London Metropolitan University, which currently has around 1,000 people going through the system to start courses in February. "We get people who, perhaps because it's a time of new year resolutions, come along to an open day in late January and are looking for courses that start straight away."
There are also growing numbers of school-leavers signing up for degree courses that start in January. These are often students who went through the UCAS system but for some reason didn't start in September and are now looking to get their higher education back on track.
"We're seeing UK students who have taken what you might call a gap semester rather than a full gap year," says Mike Dawney of Middlesex University, which expects between 800 and 900 students to start in the new year. "They may work over the summer to get some money together, maybe travel for three or four months, but don't want to hang around for the best part of a year."
Middlesex also offers a "semi-accelerated" degree programme to full-time undergraduates. The first year of study is truncated, running intensively from January to July, with the second and third years following the usual academic cycle. This offers students the samecontact time as the full three-year programme, but costs are one semester lower.
"The traditional student, who takes a leisurely view of their studies, is decreasing as the participation agenda opens the doors to people from different backgrounds, many of whom are impatient to get going with their studies," says Dawney. "The January start is just one response universities can make to demand from students for increased flexibility and lower costs."
The range of programmes with a January start date is often limited to ease the administrative burden of managing students who are out of sync with fellow students (although popular courses such as law or computing can often have a whole cohort starting together).
Middlesex offers a range of January degrees in journalism, media, publishing, business, computing science and information technology. It has also just added sociology and criminology. The School of Architecture and Construction at the University of Greenwich has a series of BSc programmes that get under way in January. Oxford Brookes University has a more extensiveoffering, with courses ranging from arts administration and anthropology to psychology and retail management.
Some courses, such as nursing, have always offered different start dates. "Nursing is a practical course which requires extensive vocational placements," says a spokesman at the University of Surrey. "To fit those in, the course is structured to have two intakes at six-month intervals."
A number of universities use January as the starting point for "taster" programmes, which allow people to test the waters before taking the plunge with a full degree. The University of Teesside, for example, runs university certificates in subjects as diverse as business management, 3D computer animation and physiotherapy. These short courses get under way in January and February.