UK universities experience ‘quietest’ clearing period for a decade

Two weeks after results there is unusually low activity and a big increase in deferrals

August 26, 2021
Source: iStock

Two weeks on from A-level results day, Ucas data show that this year’s clearing activity is at its lowest level for a decade.

The number of students currently placed through clearing two weeks after results day is 32,590, a 24 per cent drop on the previous year from 42,800 and a 28 per cent drop from this time in 2019, according to the UK’s admissions service.

This constitutes the lowest number of students placed through clearing in the past 10 years.

Mark Corver, co-founder of DataHE and a former director of analysis and research at Ucas, said: “Clearing has been quiet this year. Activity was at unusually low levels in the first week but has been more normal since. In the first 15 days, 36,370 were placed through clearing, the lowest post-2012, despite the pool of unplaced students being larger than for several years.”

Two weeks after results day there were still 142,130 applicants free to be placed in clearing.

“It's hard to say whether this environment has been caused by a shortage of suitable places in clearing or a diminution in appetite from students still in the system without a place,” he said.

This year, the use of teacher-assessed grades instead of exams led to 44.8 per cent of all A levels being awarded at A* or A, increasing the eligibility of students for higher-tariff institutions.

Because of this increase in top grades, many high-tariff institutions and medical schools were facing oversubscription, as they tend to make offers earlier in the cycle and the January deadline for applying to university had passed by the time ministers announced plans to use teacher-assessed grades.

This led to institutions with heavily oversubscribed courses, such as medicine at the University of Exeter and law at the University of Leeds, offering £10,000 incentives to students who deferred.

The Ucas figures also showed that deferrals were up by 13 per cent this year, to 27,620 − also the highest number for 10 years. The increase in deferrals was particularly pronounced when considering only 18-year-olds from England, with the number choosing this option jumping by 26 per cent to 19,020, compared with 15,060 who chose to defer last year.

The deferrals increase is also likely to be influenced by the pandemic and the associated hope that the university experience in 2022 will be more likely to resemble the pre-Covid era.

Mary Curnock Cook, a former chief executive of Ucas, said that the “additional deferrals above a ‘normal’ year might be storing up problems for next year’s applicants, particularly if any number caps are imposed”.

She also said that “the slow clearing round is not surprising because a higher proportion of applicants met their conditions with even more elevated grades this year”.

The experts explained that more accurate comparisons between this year’s and last year’s data can be made now that it is at least two weeks after A-level results day. This is because days after results were announced in 2020, the government was forced to make a U-turn over the use of an algorithm that downgraded thousands of grades, particularly those achieved by students from poorer areas.

This resulted in thousands of applicants suddenly being eligible for university courses that they had been rejected from days earlier and threw university admissions into chaos, forcing the government to lift number caps it had implemented earlier in the year.

The latest comparison shows that the increase in students given a place this year was less marked than originally thought. The number of placed applicants in UK universities is now 494,000, a less than 1 per cent increase on 2020, rather than the 5 per cent increase reported on results day. It is also lower than the 498,270 placed applicants at the same point in 2016.

The growth in placed students at high-tariff institutions was also lower than on results day: growing by 6 per cent, rather than 14 per cent. However, medium-tariff institutions’ recruitment is shown to have actually fallen by 2 per cent, rather than the original indications they had grown by 2 per cent.

Lower-tariff institutions’ intake is shown to have dropped even more in comparison with last year: placed applicants have decreased 3 per cent rather than the 2 per cent drop recorded on results day.

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