The dilemma facing thousands of disappointed A-level students today is whether, and when, to ring. Officially, the Ucca and Pcas clearing systems begin next Wednesday with the publication of course vacancies on electronic data systems and in the Independent. Unofficially, clearing starts as soon as A-level results are published today.
But most students ringing admissions tutors today or tomorrow will receive a dusty answer - if they get any reply at all. Those tutors have to sort through hundreds, sometimes thousands, of applicants and results before they can calculate how many places they have left. They can do the job more quickly if they are not fending off imploring candidates on the telephone all day.
By Monday, however, the unofficial clearing system will be in full swing. These days, near-miss students or those with very good explanations for their poor performances are expected to contact their first- and second-choice institutions almost immediately; even Ucca's official advice
to schools this year acknowl-
edged that the pre-clearing rush exists.
The system has advantages for colleges: many want to hold on to applicants who originally chose them, even if they have not performed as well as predicted. Such students are more likely than last-minute applicants to have researched the campus properly, so are less likely to drop out - and they may be persuaded to fill gaps in less popular courses.
But the numbers finding places through this unofficial clearing are probably quite small. Once candidates 'known' to the tutors in any way are dealt with, it is in admissions tutors' interests to
see what official clearing might bring.
And it brings thousands and thousands of requests. Last year almost 11,500 people obtained university places through clearing; more than 19,000 obtained places on polytechnic and college degrees, and a further 6,700 found places on Higher National Diploma courses. No one knows how many students in total use the clearing systems, but the nearly 40,000 who are successful are the equivalent of four universities.
With so many people sorting out their future within six weeks, the clearing period is inevitably chaotic. Although course vacancies are updated several times a day on the electronic systems Campus 2000, Ecctis 2000 and Polytel, and three times a week in the Independent, they actually change minute by minute as candidates select between offers.
Doom merchants predict 1992 will be more chaotic than ever, as applicants struggle to remember the new university names of 30 or more former polytechnics and colleges (see box).
'We just don't know what is going to happen,' says the Pcas chief executive, Tony Higgins. 'My guess is that this year some candidates will not necessarily choose an 'old' university in preference to a 'new' university, as they used to choose universities over polytechnics. It will be much more complicated, and the new universities could find they have more students than they can cope with.'
Would-be students may also find they face tougher competition this year. In the last two years student numbers at all colleges have leapt, as applications increased and institutions squeezed - some would say crammed - extra students in to keep pace with demand.
But this year there are signs of a halt to expansion. Applications have soared again: university hopefuls are up by 12 per cent; polytechnic and college applicants by 31 per cent. (Some of the increase is the result of the inclusion of teacher training courses in Ucca and Pcas for the first time.) But by mid-June the offers made by institutions had not kept pace with the rise in applications: Ucca offers were down by 0.5 per cent; Pcas offers up 4.5 per cent. It looks as though some people may be turned away.
If 1992 is a tight year, the advice of experts will be even more necessary. Schools and colleges should be open today and tomorrow at least to help their students; youngsters with better-than-expected results need advice about reapplying just as much as those with very poor ones.
Local authority careers officers will be on standby; their telephone numbers are in directories. Libraries should contain not only the latest course vacancies when the electronic databases come on-
stream, but also pamphlets and books of advice.
BBC Radio 5 will run a daily programme, Student Choice, at 11.30am, from today until 28 August, and an off-air helpline on the same days from 12 noon to 8pm (0800 678100). BBC 1 will present a television version of Student Choice this Sunday at 10.30am.
Advisers are likely to encourage clearing students to be imaginative and flexible: to consider modular or multi-disciplinary degrees as well as single honours courses in their favourite subjects; to consider colleges of higher education as well as universities; to look at diplomas as well as degrees.
All these subjects, plus help on how best to present yourself on the telephone, opportunities for a year off or retakes, and how to get a degree even if you fail to obtain a place in clearing, will be covered in the Independent and Independent on Sunday during the next few turbulent weeks.
THE FIVE WEEKS OF CLEARING
Thursday 20 August: A-level results published.
Tuesday 25 August: clearing instructions posted to candidates.
Wednesday 26 August: first vacancies published.
Friday 28 August: last day for colleges to confirm or reject candidates offered places before clearing.
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays to 24 September: vacancies updated in the Independent and Independent on Sunday.
Friday 25 September: official clearing ends.
DON'T GIVE UP - MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR CHANCES
Do get advice from someone who knows you and knows the system.
Do make a plan - including best option, fall-back position and absolute no-no.
Do be realistic - colleges may accept one grade lower than they want, but if you have three Ds you won't get on a course requiring three Cs without a very good excuse.
Do look widely at possible subjects - you may want to do history, but you can do it in all kinds of ways.
Do be prepared for a long haul.
Don't assume there is the 'right' course or campus for you - there are lots of equally exciting alternatives.
Don't rush into decisions - desperation must not rule your judgement.
Don't let other people's prejudices affect you - if a diploma or a college place attracts you, ignore the snobbery of anyone who says degrees and university are better.
Don't lie about your circumstances/results/intentions - someone, somewhere, will find out, and it will damage your chances much more than any unimpressive truth.
Don't give up.