AN OVERHAUL of university admissions is in the pipeline to allow students to start courses at different times of the academic year.
Officials at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service have been forced to consider long-term reforms of their systems because of increasing semesterisation and demands for flexibility.
UCAS has held talks with two universities that have invited students to enrol this term to beat next year's tuition fee charges.
The universities, De Montfort and the University of Central England, have had to bypass UCAS because it is not yet able to process applications at such short notice outside the normal autumn applications round.
Anthony McClaran, UCAS deputy chief executive, said: "Universities which have membership of UCAS are quite clear about the rules - recruitment of full-time undergraduates is through UCAS. Membership of UCAS is conditional on this. Clearly if the conditions of membership aren't observed, we enter into a discussion with that institution."
He said the number of students likely to be involved in the De Montfort and UCE schemes was small. But UCAS was looking into ways of processing this kind of alternative application in future.
De Montfort has advertised places on degree courses in arts, humanities, health, agriculture, science, physical education business and engineering starting in February, the beginning of the second semester. UCE is also offering places on engineering courses starting this January.
Students, who will be expected to make up the term they have missed either during the course or at the end, have been asked to apply directly to the institutions.
At both institutions, students starting this term will escape the changes to fee and maintenance arrangements.
A spokeswoman for De Montfort University said they had already received more than 200 calls about the scheme. "We have been following what we thought was official protocol because as far as we are concerned there is no way students can go through UCAS mid-year," she said. "Because we are piloting this we are stirring up all sorts of issues."
Peter Knight, UCE vice chancellor, said that in introducing a January start he was responding to demand from students. While he conceded this year was exceptional because of changes to fees and maintenance, he said the demand had existed before fees had been suggested. UCE has already announced it is waiving the Pounds 1,000 tuition fee charge for students starting engineering courses next year.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said: "I don't think we would encourage universities to do this. But it is a matter for them. They are obviously aware they will face HEFCE penalties if they over-recruit."