Half a dozen higher education institutions are likely to share the Pounds 6 million on offer for pilot programmes testing the use of the summer semester.
Only around ten bids to explore the implications of year-round university teaching were expected to have been submitted by today's closing date.
The joint working group of vice chancellors, principals and the Higher Education Funding Council is keen to fund a small number of diverse experiments.
"We are not looking for a large number of pilots because we want each one of them to be substantial. We may end up funding four or five or six, we are not talking in excess of that," said working group chairman David Johns, vice chancellor of Bradford University.
He said one useful aspect of a third semester would be in offering a start for students who missed out on autumn enrolment but did not want to wait another year to begin their course.
The working group was set up after the Flowers report in 1993 on the use of the academic year, which recommended semesters to replace terms and trials of summer teaching. Institutions have had less than two months to submit proposals, which should not lead to an increase in full-time students and must include close monitoring of quality, student demand, staff response, research activity, learner support and the impact on premises and student accommodation.
One of the bidders is Derby University, which has abandoned the three 15-week terms model and re-adjusted its calendar, with assessment of the first semester coming after Christmas, to accommodate an eight or nine-week semester during the summer.
Pro vice chancellor Jonathan Powers said: "Our ideas have been developed over four years since we first talked to the funding council about it.
"If approached in the right way, with sufficient imagination, we see it as something which would not only enhance opportunities for students but also make arrangements for staff work better."
Liz Allen from Natfhe said: "The speed with which this bidding process has been pushed through makes a real nonsense of the recommendations in the Flowers report that if third semesters are being considered, you have got to think very carefully about the impact on staff and conditions.
"It is clear in Flowers that the idea of importing a load of part-timers for the summer semester just would not be on. If they are not going to bring in part-timers they are going to have to use existing members of staff and I do not see how they could do it within current conditions of service."