UCAS Clearing: Let's clear away the anxiety

Don't panic. The higher education Clearing system can find you that place of study. By Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS
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Clearing. The very word seems to strike terror in prospective students, their families and teachers. It's what the press so often call the annual scramble for places at university or college. UCAS calls it something else: part of the application process when students still without places, following the publication of examination results, are matched to vacancies on courses.

There is no reason to be terrified by Clearing. It really does work and, provided prospective students have a little patience, are prepared to be flexible, do not panic and, when necessary, act decisively, there will be a place at university or college for them by the start of the academic year.

Recent research, conducted on behalf of the Educational Counselling and Credit Transfer Information Service (ECCTIS), which received some press coverage a month or so ago, suggested that, because students who went through Clearing were disappointed with the process, then Clearing does not work. That, of course, is a quite facile conclusion because, by definition, the vast majority of students who go through Clearing have not made the offers of their first or second choices at Confirmation and are, by definition, going to be disappointed at not having gone to their preferred university or college.

Rather, it is better to acknowledge the statement made in the report on student drop-out, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It noted, with some surprise, it has to be said, that there was no greater disappointment or drop-out rate among those who were admitted through Clearing than those who had got in to university or college via the more measured route throughout the whole of the applications cycle. Perhaps we should not wonder at this, because those who are admitted in Clearing are taking decisions on what they wish to study after they have their qualifying examination results and when, by definition, they are more mature and more secure in the knowledge of what they would like to do than when they first filed their application a year earlier.

The Dearing Report into higher education recommended the introduction of a system in which candidates apply after they have their examination results. This has since been supported not only by UCAS but also the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the Standing Conference of Principals and the Government. Whether the time constraints imposed by the current examination timetable and the start to the higher education academic year will ever permit the introduction of a post- qualification applications system remains to be seen.

Certainly, those admitted in Clearing do have a second and later bite at the cherry. I recall a couple of years ago two headlines appearing in the national press: "Clearing works - almost too well" and "Good news for A level students". Clearing is obviously a worrying time, not only for applicants but also for the higher education institutions who are wanting to ensure that they can meet their targets. Basically, the procedure is that anybody who is applying de novo, ie after 30 June, or anybody who has failed to make the required grades at GNVQ or A level, or anybody who is not holding an offer, is sent a Clearing entry form by UCAS. The applicant should then take advice from school or career staff about future options. A different subject? A different kind of course? A different kind of institution? Re-sit examinations? Take a year out and re-apply?

The applicant then needs to consult the official vacancy lists in The Independent and contact the admissions staff at any university or college which he/she has researched and is apparently still offering places. It is vital that it is the applicant who contacts the institution and not the doting parent. It is the student that the university or college wishes to admit and not mum or dad. If the institution sounds impressed with the student, then it will probably ask him/her to send the Clearing entry form for consideration. Note: it is important that the original is sent and not a copy. This is to ensure that applicants are not dealing with more than one institution at a time and playing one off against the other.

It will be interesting to see whether Clearing will be different this year from previous years. Throughout the applications cycle, leading to entry in 1998, there have been forecasts of massive decreases in the numbers of applicants, particularly in those coming from the lower socio-economic groups, because of the Government's decision to introduce tuition fees from the academic year 1998/99, and to change the methods of student financial support by the eventual abolition of the maintenance grant. So far, all those forecasts have turned out to be incorrect. In other words, demand has been as buoyant this year as it has in previous years.

What we now need to look for is whether that demand will be translated into students. There are those who suggest, using anecdotal evidence, that large numbers have applied for a place at university or college without being certain that they will necessarily take up the place offered. Those predicting doom and gloom say that when students are faced with the realisation of paying tuition fees, they may withdraw their application and try to go straight into employment. Time will tell, but so many forecasts this year have turned out wide of the mark that it would be foolish to make any predictions at this stage.

I had one pet theory that there would be an increase in applicants this year wanting to take a year out so that they could secure a place for entry in 1999 but then spend a year working to save towards paying their way through college. Quite the reverse has happened: there has been a fall in applicants for deferred entry of 16 per cent.

The universities and colleges may face an unusual challenge this year. There have been very wide fluctuation in application rates between institutions, with some having considerable reductions and others considerable increases. It has been noticeable as to how many former polytechnics have had large percentage increases this year.

These pluses and minuses appear to be quite random across the country so it may well be that the strategy of comparing themselves with others adopted over the years by individual institutions might this year be invalid. Whatever happens, can I urge calm on all those involved, whether it is directly, such as applicants, parents, teachers, advisers, universities, colleges and UCAS, or peripherally, such as commentators and politicians.