January start dates for UK postgraduate courses here to stay

Post-92s and private universities more likely to offer incoming students the option of when they begin their course while Russell Group stick to traditional autumn start

August 8, 2022
Swimmer in backstroke race with another swimmer standing in the water to illustrate January start dates for UK postgraduate courses here to stay
Source: iStock

A sixth of postgraduate courses being offered by UK universities for the coming academic year have the option of a winter start date in a sign that increased flexibility introduced during the pandemic is here to stay.

Course data for 2022-23 collected from institutional websites by higher education consultancy The Knowledge Partnership show post-92 institutions and private universities lead the way on offering multiple start dates, with those in the Russell Group more likely to stick to commencing all courses in the autumn.

Students studying business and management, law and computing are the most likely to get the option of when they start, with increased flexibility also evident in online and distance learning programmes.

Mathematics, historical, philosophical and religious studies or biological and sport sciences were the subjects found to be least likely to deviate from the more traditional start date.

Due to disruption and uncertainty caused by Covid, universities switched to offer a broader range of start dates for postgraduates in 2020 and 2021, to ensure take-up of courses remained strong.

Although data on when courses began were not collected by TKP pre-pandemic, its senior market analyst Amy Ross said the practice was still prevalent, despite restrictions lifting.

“There does seem to be a lot of interest in different flexible methods of course delivery and one of the things providers can do is offer multiple start dates or different start dates,” she said.

Of 16,700 courses in the database, three-quarters had just one start date in the autumn, 16 per cent had an option of an autumn or winter start date and 6 per cent had multiple start dates with one or more being outside the autumn and winter.

At established research-intensive universities, 84 per cent of courses started in the autumn and this figure was even higher among Russell Group members, where 94 per cent of programmes start in September, October or November.

This compared with 64 per cent of courses starting in the autumn at modern universities. Private providers offer even greater flexibility, with 28 per cent of courses having multiple start dates and 50 per cent having both an autumn and winter start.

Ms Ross said this was perhaps due to the Russell Group’s ability to recruit sufficient student numbers using the traditional model, while more modern institutions are also more likely to offer the subjects that tend to favour flexibility and recruit students who value the convenience of different start times.

For international students, most prefer the traditional model as a winter start would require them to stay in the UK over the long summer but flexibility may help attract students from countries with different academic years – for example, in parts of the southern hemisphere – who may otherwise struggle to complete their studies in time to begin a course in the UK in September, Ms Ross said.

“I think this trend will continue as the number of distance learning courses goes up. Since Covid, there’s much more awareness of flexible learning and the idea of microcredentials and building up different elements to achieve a whole degree, and this feeds into this,” she added.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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