With A level results day fast approaching, universities across the UK are gearing up for the chaotic scramble to fill university places at this time of year. Last year, over 300 institutions and more than 55,700 students obtained their places in Clearing – 4,600 more than in 2011 – the highest recorded to date. Academics and administrators alike are busily clearing the way for Clearing – our only guarantee that we are not quite sure what to expect.
This year represents my 16th anniversary of involvement with Clearing (17th if you count the by association experience when my best friend went to university through Clearing back in 1988). It is undoubtedly my busiest thanks to the ever-changing landscape of HE being created as a result of higher fees and the Government’s core and margin policy to restrict and manage the number of students being recruited.
At Birmingham City University, the preparation for ‘Clearing’ started around three months ago, not least because the process of accepting or confirming students on places for undergraduate courses begins in earnest some months earlier than August.
There is a long-standing public misconception that Clearing is solely for A level students and as such begins on A level results day. The official UCAS process itself begins at the start of July and runs until September. It is true that the majority of those entering university hold A levels, however the proportion of the population entering holding A levels actually fell in 2012, while that of UK 18 year olds entering with BTECs increased and has risen by 80% since 2008. Research published in 2011 showed that more than half of 20 to 30-year-olds going on to higher education are BTEC students. Similarly, numbers studying the International Baccalaureate have been steadily rising. Results for the multitude of qualifications now accepted within entry requirements come out from as early as May onwards, enabling their recipients to confirm their places (as a number who attended our recent Open Day in June chose to do).
Clearing last year was described as a ‘bloodbath’. It was definitely a watershed moment: universities fell short of recruitment targets by almost 30,000 representing millions of pounds in lost fee income and a number of Russell Group universities were forced to enter Clearing for the first time, hit hardest by the reduction of AAB students (at this is point I stifle a wry smile, having worked in three post-92 universities that have always relied on Clearing). This created a ripple effect throughout the pecking order, though at BCU we managed to recruit one more student than in 2011.
There can be no doubt that lessons were learned; all universities have treated their recruitment for 2013 with a little caution and a lot more attention. At BCU, we are working harder than ever to ensure prospective students (and parents) recognise the benefits of what we have to offer as a university focused on creative and professional education and research. Our popularity continues with UCAS applications bucking national trends – up 13 compared to 3 per cent. Whether those applications will convert to students sufficient to meet our targets remains to be seen.
Members of staff in Education Liaison, Admissions and the Academic Faculties have already been liaising with our feeder schools and colleges to help secure places for those wanting to come to university this September. Meanwhile, large numbers of staff have been contributing to the preparation for the huge logistical operation that kicks in when universities receive A level results the weekend before results day. Like their counterparts up and down the country, our admissions staff will be working over this weekend in readiness for the communication to confirm places to students who have met their offers and do not need to enter the Clearing process. For those who have not secured or are seeking to change places, we open our Clearing hotline at 8am on August 15 and will have staff on site at five local colleges in Birmingham. We will also be running a dedicated Open Day on Saturday August 17 from 10am-2pm targeted specifically at students seeking to gain entry this September.
Last year, the University received almost 4,000 calls to the hotline and our course enquiries line on Results Day, while our central switchboard took 2,600 calls. This year we have taken the unprecedented step of recruiting and training over 40 staff from across the University to support marketing staff who have traditionally manned the lines.
Rumours abound that the “elite universities” are gearing up for Clearing too. Some have already taken the unusual (some might say risky) step of making unconditional offers based on predicted grades, while others are reportedly dropping their entry requirements substantially to ensure they recover student numbers. This effectively means that the ripple effect we saw during Clearing in 2012 may actually have already started – without many universities realising. Which students will be available in Clearing and with what grades is something of a mystery and some hotlines could turn out to be surprisingly quiet.