Sam Gyimah, England’s higher education minister, recently criticised the steep rise in the number of unconditional offers being made to university applicants. Ucas, the admissions service, says that 23 per cent of this year’s school-leavers have received at least one such offer, and Gyimah calls this “completely irresponsible” because, in his view, it risks discouraging young people from maximising their A-level grades.
But isn’t there a better way to address this perceived problem? Clearing has become a key element of the UK admissions process. Last year, a record 60,000 students – 12 per cent of all placed applicants – secured their place through this route. If universities can manage this, ensuring that such applicants can start alongside their peers in September and October, perhaps we could and should manage the entire recruitment process this way. Perhaps all UK university offers should be made after exam results are known – as they are, according to the University and College Union, in every other country.
The clearing process dates back before the current fees regime, and the concept of the student being a consumer. It was set up to allow those students who fail to achieve the necessary grades for their preferred university to find a place elsewhere. Some argue that the stigma this imposed on those who go through clearing is not what it once was, but I’m not sure. While some students use the system to “trade up” when they exceed their predicted grades, the majority who are placed through clearing have achieved lower-than-expected grades and been rejected by their two favourite universities. But that stigma would certainly be erased if everyone applied once they had their results. It is also worth saying that although universities and Ucas have been working hard to provide enhanced information and advice about clearing, it is a very stressful experience for applicants and their families, as I found out first-hand last year when my daughter unexpectedly found herself in clearing.
Some have argued that moving to a post-qualification admissions system would entail a frantic late-summer round of activity for Ucas and admissions staff. But, by the same token, it would cut out a whole tranche of the administrative cycle, in which offers are made and then withdrawn, and in which students ask to be released from their courses if their grades improve, or if they have simply changed their mind. It would also save a significant amount of money that universities spend each year on marketing and recruitment activities to entice clearing applicants, as well as the creation of a sizeable call centre for what is, in essence, one day. Obviously, any changes to the current system would need to be well thought through and would need full consultation with the multiple stakeholders to work out the various issues, but surely it’s time to start these discussions?
Moreover, doing away with the need for predicted grades could reduce the pressure on applicants to achieve them, while maintaining the incentive to do as well as possible. This would surely be a good thing at a time of increasing mental health problems among young people.
My position at the University of Hertfordshire is unusual as I have oversight of not only admissions processes but also some of our on-campus student services, so I can see the impact that clearing sometimes has on students once they arrive. It can cause real financial hardship, for instance, while the student waits for the Student Loans Company to process their “change of circumstances”, they could arrive at university to find that the maintenance monies have been delayed. Students with a mental health condition or disability could find that their support arrangements are not in place for the start of term. Students coming through clearing are also at the back of the queue for accommodation. Many find that there is no room left on campus and end up living in the local community. All this can make for a more difficult transition to university and puts clearing students at higher risk of dropping out.
At a time when student well-being services are under serious strain, and we are all being asked to deliver increased value for money, it seems like an obvious time to review and revise our admissions processes. I know where I’d rather be spending the money, and it’s certainly not by asking students to apply twice and risking heartbreak in the process.
Julie Kelly is head of the Student Centre at the University of Hertfordshire.