Buck tradition by enrolling on a programme beginning in the New Year and you could earn your degree and start looking for a job while others are still embroiled in their studies. By Stephen Hoare

Legal training may be deeply conservative in the main, but when it comes to postgraduate options it is firmly among the vanguard. Four years ago, BPP Law School began offering courses starting in January, although it did not know how employers or prospective students would respond. “We were testing the market,” says Peter Crisp, chief executive of BPP Law School.

Since launching its Masters of laws (LLM) degrees with a January start, applications have climbed by around 10 to 25 per cent overall. “At first we thought we would be splitting the market. But actually it has helped us recruit more students,” says Crisp.

The January start date – or second semester – severs universities’ longstanding attachment to an academic year with a long summer break. Private sector institutions, such as BPP and the University of Buckingham, were among the first to break down the barriers and found that moving away from a single start date in September gave them a competitive advantage.

“When Buckingham was founded, we needed to be seen to be offering something different, so all of our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes start in January,” says Debbie Millns, the marketing and admissions manager at the university.

Law and management are among Buckingham’s most popular subjects, especially with mature students. “Adults in the workplace prefer coming to us at the start of a new year. Our January start also helps us to retain undergraduates, who are more likely to stay with us and move on to one of our postgraduate courses,” says Millns.

With levels of student debt rising, universities have to be more responsive to their customers’ needs. Postgraduates who defer their start until January have six extra months in which to work and earn money to fund the next stage in their career. They also face less competition because there are fewer graduates enter the jobs market in December and January, even though employers are still recruiting then.

The full-time Masters of business administration (MBA) at Ashridge Business School has always run from January to December. Its students tend to be mid-career executives in their mid-thirties for whom a traditional university will not do.

“Business works on a calendar year. There is a sense of a fresh start in a new year and our students will be taking a year off from work,” says Narandra Laljani, director of graduate programmes at Ashridge. As a result of its experience with the MBA, Ashridge has launched a Masters degree in organisational change and a masters in management, both with January starts. “We meet the needs of our core market, which is seasoned consultants and change practitioners,” says Laljani.

The Masters degree in film making at Goldsmiths, University of London, has chosen to begin courses in the New Year for more practical reasons. “Starting in January allows us to make more intensive use of our film studio and editing suites,” says Gerry McCulloch, the course convenor.

When the September intake of undergraduate film makers has left in July, the postgraduates can work on their graduation films over the summer free from interruption. The Masters in film making is the only Goldsmiths postgraduate degree to start in January and attracts mainly early career film professionals from the UK, Europe and worldwide.

Firms have been quick to spot an opportunity to push universities further along the route towards January starts. BPP Law School recently signed an exclusive deal with the London law firms Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Hogan Lovells, Herbert Smith, Slaughter and May and Norton Rose to run a legal practice course for their graduate recruits. The programme is divided into two equal cohorts, one starting in August and the other in February. “The law firms are recruiting twice a year, so having two start dates means students can start their legal training right away,” says Crisp.

In an era of rising tuition fees, the ability to attract international students is vital to the long-term viability of many postgraduate courses. Here, January starts are a vital weapon in a university’s armoury. “We recruit a lot of international postgraduates from countries like South Africa whose universities operate a December to January academic year. An early year start gives international students more of a chance to get their visa sorted, says Buckingham’s Millns.

This view is echoed by Anthony Dangerfield, the international development manager for the University of East London, who says that 40 per cent of the university’s international postgraduate students now start in January, a policy that also helps the UK Border Agency to spread the workload of processing student visas. Starting in January gives an additional six months for overseas students to enroll at language school and boost their TOEFL or IELTs score, which in turn gives them a higher chance of academic success.

Widening participation is another factor. “We take overseas students with vocational qualifications and many of these, like Edexcel’s HND, don’t normally publish student results until the autumn, which means we have the time to consider them for a January start. Many of our international students may already be studying in the UK. If we can take them in January they won’t need to renew their visas,” says Dangerfield.

Andrew Disbury, director of the international office at Leeds Metropolitan University, paints a complex picture. “International postgraduate students may have been thinking of applying to a university in the US, or to Oxford or Cambridge or a red brick university in the UK. But for one reason or another they may not have been able to put plan A into operation. When we offer them the chance of a January start we are giving them an exit route,” he says.

A review of all postgraduate courses at Leeds Met looks certain to introduce more January starts, says Disbury. “Running two start dates and two semesters is increasingly common. For us it’s a perfect halfway house.”