Why wait until September when more and more courses are starting in January and February?

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Everyone, it seems, wants to make universities more accessible. But, no matter how many friendly prospectuses universities produce, many still come a cropper over that simple piece of stationary, the academic diary.

The academic year, starting in September, is perfectly designed for British school leavers, fitting the familiar school year and giving them a long summer break after exams, but for the rest of us it can seem a contrary inconvenience.

Prospective students who miss the Ucas deadline this year could find themselves waiting until autumn 2009 before they hand in their first essay.

Help is at hand. A growing number of universities offer courses starting in the second semester, January and February to you and me, many accessed directly rather than through Ucas and with enrolment running into February.

Some universities have already started courses, Middlesex University, for example, last week, but there are still places at many institutions available this year, and if you get your skates on, it is not too late to get on to a course.

Tonight, London Metropolitan University will be hosting open evenings at its Holborn and Holloway Road campuses for those interested in starting undergraduate and postgraduate courses in February. Interested people can sign up at the events or apply directly to the university at any time until mid February. London Met has been running bachelor and Masters programmes beginning in the spring term for more than 10 years. Now students can make a February start on 93 of its undergraduate and 84 of its postgraduate programmes. The content is exactly the same as for courses starting at the beginning of the academic year.

"It's not difficult for us to organise," says Sarah Marklew, admissions co-ordinator at London Met. "And for the students everyone's starting a fresh set of modules. Everyone's in the same boat."

London Met started offering the courses on demand, particularly from mature students, for courses that fitted more easily into the conventional calendar. "It means people don't have to wait another year," says Marklew.

For some students a second semester start makes the difference between doing a course and not doing it. "I was in two minds," says Arti Nischal, 26, who graduated last year from the University of East London's business human resource management bachelors degree. "If I'd had to wait until September I wouldn't have gone."

Nischal left behind a hair and beauty salon business to take the course at the University of East London. A difficult decision, but she believes the right one. "It was definitely worth it," she says. "I'm glad I did it."

Nischal is now working as an account executive for L'Oreal. "A lot of what I learnt really, really applies to what I'm doing now," she says.

As well as hawking product, Nischal also gives business advice to salons, and through L'Oreal offers training to their staff.

It was not, she agrees, an easy option. "People who are new are not in the same league. It's hard to keep up if you're a semester behind."

It is not only undergraduate degrees that are up for grabs this semester, but also postgraduate courses, and shorter, stand-alone courses. Finance qualifications are traditionally the exception to second semester starts, as most require a solid grounding in the first semester's course before you can tackle later modules, but some universities are even turning these around to meet the growing demand for second semester starts.

This year, for the first time, the University of Salford Business School has five Masters programmes starting this semester: international banking and finance, international business, management, managing IT, and marketing.

"It's our attempt to meet the changing market," says Tony Conway, associate head of marketing and recruitment at the school. "We're trying to look forward and be a bit more market driven."

Interested British students are benefiting from universities' interest in the international market. Salford introduced the second semester starts as a response to demand from overseas students who work to a different academic year.

Putting finance courses on a second semester start is a more complex business than many other courses. "It is difficult," admits Dr Conway. The school has had to recruit new staff to teach the courses, but he insists there has been no compromise on quality. "It's exactly the same programme," he says.

As universities become increasingly market orientated and demand driven, expect to see more second semester starts. For now, if you want to start studying, you are not too late.

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