The changing face of the clearing process

The scramble for places is no longer about courses and universities that nobody else wants, writes Matthew Andrews

August 21, 2015
enter, door, way in, results, clearing, applications

It can sometimes seem like everything and yet nothing changes, and the annual rolling-out of stories about clearing and A-level results is one such occasion.

There is, for example, the annual festival of sixth-formers (normally female) captured for posterity celebrating their results by jumping in the air as high as their photographer can persuade them. The Mail Online ran one such story that was positively crammed with such images of levitating students, to the point where it became a parody of itself.

Many events that seem tired and stale can nevertheless be pretty harmless, and such recurring pictures probably fall into that camp. However, there are inferences about gender roles implicit in such images that arguably need to be challenged, especially with the context of the growing gap between men and women entering higher education. In 2015, for example, acceptances for men have increased by 1 per cent, to 172,420, while acceptances for women have increased by 4 per cent, to 224,570.

The Mail Online story, however, also typifies another old trope about clearing: that it is a sort of speed-dating process for the academically unsuccessful, as unfortunate students scrabble to find places on unwanted courses. Universities were “inundated with calls from students desperate to snap up the last spots”, we were told. 

Indeed, the number of applicants seeking places through the clearing process is increasing. Ucas figures show that as at 19 August, 38,220 people had been accepted through clearing, a rise of 5 per cent on the same point in 2014 and the highest number ever recorded. Every year, clearing is becoming more intensive and condensed into a shorter and shorter period. 

While five to 10 years ago a university’s clearing operation would have easily continued well into the week after A-level results (and perhaps beyond), the pressure from phone calls and new enquirers now quickly dissipates after the first weekend – even the pressure on the Friday after A-level results are released is vastly different from the volume of enquiries on the morning of A-level results. About half the applicants using clearing will be placed by the first Monday.

What needs to change, and is changing in many places, is the perception of the type of student who enters clearing and the institutions that make places available. 

Clearing is not just about students who find themselves without a place after exhausting all their original applications or failing to achieve the grades they needed in their exams: some 15 per cent of applicants accepted in clearing this year had not applied in the main round of applications at all, for example. Many students seeking places through clearing have excellent grades, too.

Neither are the places available restricted to some narrowly defined subset of institution. Although the Mail considers it news that “elite universities in the Russell Group are slashing grade requirements for places on highly coveted courses as they struggle to fill them” (and this only a few days after publishing “Institutions warn sixth-formers going through clearing process that they have less [sic] places to offer”), the increasing availability of places is simply a reality.

As the number of places has expanded, so too has the choice for students. Sensationalism around a Russell Group university entering clearing is therefore increasingly anachronistic. 

Almost all universities now recruit students through clearing – and some have done so for many years more than they might have advertised. The freedom created by the removal of the student numbers cap does mean that universities are able to recruit the number of students they feel able to, and do not have to artificially restrict entry. In some years, these caps meant that students with excellent grades were denied a place if they narrowly missed an offer simply because the cap meant institutions had little or no flexibility to accept them.

For the first time in generations, universities can now recruit as many students as they want, unencumbered by caps imposed by government, and this means that more options are open to students than ever before. And yes, that includes the Russell Group entering clearing.

I had the pleasure of talking to some students on the day of A-level results through a live web-chat on the THE and TES. One student explained that they hadn’t achieved the grades they needed. “My mum”, the student wrote, “says i should go through clearing, but im not so sure as a teacher told me clearing was just for courses and unis nobody else wanted.” 

As with so many hard decisions in life, I told that student to listen to their mum.

Matthew Andrews is academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University.

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