For many postgraduates, the year starts now, says Steve McCormack

You might think that midwinter is a quiet time in university admissions departments, with last autumn's entrants well bedded in to university life, and this year's new arrivals season still a long way off. But you'd be wrong, because many universities these days take in a substantial surge of new-starters right now, in late January and early February. It's become particularly popular in the postgraduate field, where flexible modes of study and time-tabling of courses have been on the increase for many years.

It's a phenomenon that's taken off largely at newer institutions. A typical example is London Metropolitan University, where around 850 postgraduate students from the UK and abroad – some from countries where the academic year ends in December – are embarking on a new course in the next week or so.

They've chosen from a wide range of courses. Among well over a hundred programmes taking February starters are Masters courses in film studies, community nursing and mobile and satellite communications. In nearly every case, enough new postgraduates are recruited to form a cohort in their own right, distinct from those who embarked on the same courses last autumn.

The university's director of student recruitment, Mark Bickerton, says he's seen the popularity of February starts grow in the past few years for a number of reasons.

"Sometimes it's a new year's resolution, and sometimes it's caused by losing a job, which can happen at any time of the year. In addition, in London a lot of people want to do a Masters part time, and there's as much logic to starting in February as there is to starting in September," he says.

And for part-time postgraduates, who form about a third of the February intake at London Met, Bickerton thinks there's an advantage of this start time. "If you're doing a job as well as studying, there's an attraction to having one semester until June, and then getting a four-month break," he says.

There's a healthy geographical spread of universities offering a winter start. At the University of Dundee eight academic departments, including law, computing and engineering, offer this option. Among the selection at Bournemouth University are several courses in forensic science. While Birmingham City University has 40 separate Masters programmes organised this way, from automotive engineering to supply chain management.

Although most universities start their recruitment drive for winter-start postgrad courses during November, all accept new applications through the busy month of January, almost to the eve of course start dates. There may even still be places on some February-start courses available as you read this.

At the University of Derby, for example, where around 400 postgraduates are about to embark on a variety of courses, enrolment day is 7 February, and applications will be considered up until the previous Friday.

"A February start has been popular with postgraduates for quite some time," explains Professor Liz Barnes, pro-vice chancellor at Derby. "But at Derby we don't focus as much on traditional students, but work closely with a number of business organisations and try to offer opportunities for part-time postgraduate study for CPD [continuing professional development] purposes."

In this category, among the most popular courses are the MSc in occupational therapy and the MSc in environmental health, which has attracted a large group of students studying online via distance learning.

And the largest February postgraduate recruiter at Derby this year has been the Masters in education, on which 75 trained teachers are about to embark on a part-time basis, while, in most cases, continuing their day job in the classroom.