Offers we can't refuse

Sally Feldman on the deals, desperation and bottom-line realities of clearing

August 21, 2008

August is the cruellest month. Just as the prison gates open and hard-pressed academics are at last able to curl their toes in the sand, scale rock faces, contemplate mountains or simply bury themselves in the austere comforts of the British Library, they are snatched back for the annual ritual of clearing.

Up and down the land, university switchboards screech into overdrive, impoverished graduates are drafted in to take calls and hordes of reluctant admissions tutors are making breakneck decisions that will literally change lives.

There is nothing quite as intense as that first couple of days of frantic calls and sobbing pleas, nothing that so exemplifies the fundamental strangeness of higher education. On the one hand, our students are partners in a journey of discovery: young minds ripe for expansion and revelation, the burgeoning talents and intellects and leaders of the future. On the other, they are the market. And our job is to make sure we bring in the business.

This is the time of year when academic life most resembles the trading floor. Planning officers will suddenly beg you to accept more students to make up for a shortfall elsewhere, and you will engage in an undignified negotiation about how much you will be reimbursed per head. Fast deals and quick calculations are made. Popular courses may swell and others collapse. Extra computers are promised, more teaching hours squeezed.

The whole exercise is driven by panic. Deans have to make their targets because that's what determines the budget. And those targets are based on a combination of instinct and optimism, shakily informed by grade predictions from schools. Faced with unfilled places, it is tempting to accept applicants who fail to achieve the required results. Sometimes there is no choice.

It is hard to imagine another business so reliant on guesswork. Our financial year has already begun, but we won't be sure of our income until mid-September because we won't know exactly how many new students will arrive. We will know about the ones who messed up the exams, but what about those who change their minds at the last minute? They'll suddenly have a yen to take a motorbike around Thailand; they're pregnant; they've gone off animation and want to do physics instead; they decide they want to join their girlfriend in Dublin.

This is why there are repeated, frustrated calls for the system to be reformed. The latest has come from Mike Cresswell, director-general of the examining board AQA, who wants A-level marks to be released a week earlier to give pupils more time to challenge their results or to make choices about their university.

But many would like a more radical overhaul. As far back as 2003, a government report recommended a "post-qualification" application system so that universities could make firm offers. It was welcomed by Charles Clarke, then Education Secretary. Bill Rammell, the current Higher Education Minister, agrees that such a system would be an improvement.

It is unlikely any change will be introduced before the next general election. That may come as a relief to schools and universities who don't relish yet another upheaval.

So for now we're stuck with the traditional frenzy, where for a few days small differences are buried in the collective drive to recruit at all costs and where camaraderie is at a premium. One of my fellow deans encourages his admissions staff by cooking elaborate meals for them, bringing in fabulous daubes and casseroles to boost the party spirit.

Some course leaders will do anything to avoid clearing, considering it an admission of failure. Others rather like it. Media and arts courses, which don't rely solely on A levels but also on interviews and portfolios, can find unexpected talent that way.

The leader of one popular music degree actually wanted to enter his course into clearing because he was getting too many applications from "white public-school guitarists". He thought he could balance the mix with a few wild cards who, with luck, would exhibit the kind of unsavoury habits that are de rigueur in the drum and bass world.

A journalism programme went through a similar wobble this year when the team noticed they had accepted an overabundance of Charlottes. Clearing, presumably, might have thrown up a few more Kylies and Waynes.

But quibbles about the social mix of the intake are trivial compared with the dilemmas of those who are so desperate to make their numbers that they will happily enrol the college cat. I know one dean who insists on taking all the calls himself. "Oh dear, two Ds, that must be so disappointing for you," he'll murmur soothingly. "I am so sorry, but we really do insist on at least three Cs. But, wait a minute, maybe there is something I can do."

He'll put the phone on hold, munch a sandwich while doing Sudoku, then get back and say: "Look, I've pulled a few strings for you. And you mustn't ever let on because my boss would kill me if he knew." Then he'll calmly take her details before moving on to the next no-hoper.

One admissions officer admitted that, if times get really hard, he will apply the ultimate strategy: the breathalyser test. "You get the applicant to breathe on to a mirror," he explained. "If a mist appears - they're in."

But I may have a better idea. Rosie Boycott suggested recently in The Guardian that people served with ASBOs should be made to work on allotments. Why not get them to man the clearing switchboards instead? It would be a boon to universities and would offer at least some disadvantaged young people a taste of higher education.

Who knows? They might be the very candidates to snatch up those coveted places and turn from antisocial dropouts into students.

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