Fancy taking a degree? You can sign up tomorrow and start within days, says Harriet Swain

It's cold, you've exhausted the gossip from the office Christmas party, and your colleague is doing that pen-tapping thing against his teeth again. There must be more to life.

Why not find out? You could be contemplating its meaning within a month through a BA in philosophy. Alternatively, perhaps you'd benefit from a BA in peace and conflict studies. Or do you feel in need of a BSc in nutrition, exercise and health? All are among dozens of undergraduate and postgraduate courses being offered by London Metropolitan University that start in February. About half of all its degree courses now have two intakes. And unlike those starting in September, for which you have to apply through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, for these you go directly to the university. So long as you meet the entry requirements, and there is a place, you can apply right up to the course start date.

Oxford Brookes University offers a BA or BSc in philosophy starting in January, although the deadline for application to these courses was in December. It also offers a range of other undergraduate degrees with a new year start date, from film studies to statistics. Philosophy is also on offer this month at Middlesex, along with subjects including art and design, dance, music and theatre arts, biological sciences and business. Business-related degrees are by far the most popular options at universities offering a January start. This is because they are popular anyway so universities easily have enough applicants to justify teaching two cohorts a year. It is also because business is a top choice for the mature and international students that a January start tends to attract.

Coventry, which offers a January start for its full range of undergraduate business degrees, has tried doing the same for other courses in the past but without as much success. Westminster offers a general undergraduate business degree and allows students to specialise in finance, marketing, human resource management or information management. Its selection of January-start MAs is wider but many of these too are business related. About half of the students on Coventry's January business courses are from overseas - an experience shared with other universities.

Universities such as Middlesex that operate a modular system adapt relatively easily to a different start date because their degrees are already delivered in a flexible way. This is also why degrees involving combined honours tend to work well. The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) is piloting a January-start degree in combined honours this year. It is offering combinations involving business, law, criminology, history, sociology and English Literature. The choice of these six subjects from its list of nearly 70 available to combine in September is partly for practical reasons: all except business are within the faculty headed by Mike Abramson, who is leading the pilot. But Abramson says it is also relevant that they are subjects with traditional appeal to mature students.

While law fits into this category, offering it in January can be more complicated because of the need to coincide with the professional qualifications timetable. It is nevertheless available at London Metropolitan and Middlesex as well as UCLan. Otherwise, courses with professional links, such as computing, education and tourism, are popular choices for a January start because many of the students attracted by a less-traditional academic timetable are in work and taking a degree to further their careers.

Salford is among a number of institutions offering undergraduate nursing qualifications starting in February, which helps stagger the number of new nurses entering the workforce over the year. Harder to find are highly specialised courses, especially if they involve extensive use of classroom teaching or equipment, because they won't attract enough people to fill two intakes. However, if you are prepared to mix and match your specialised interests you could be lucky. This year Derby University's new Buxton campus has launched a selection of courses for its combined subject programme including countryside management, equine studies and creative writing. And if that colleague - and your post-Christmas waistline - are still getting you down you could always try its course in martial arts theory and practice.