As the summer holidays draw to a close, new undergraduate recruits turn their minds to Freshers' Week. For them, the next fortnight will involve a flurry of shopping for student essentials (tin opener, Blu Tack) and a hectic calendar of leaving drinks as old friends go their separate ways.
For 157,555 A-level graduates, however, the future isn't quite so certain. According to Ucas, this is the number of students that are currently free to seek a place through Clearing.
Time may be short, but if you're an unplaced student, a number of course vacancies are still available. With a little careful research, a few well-placed telephone calls, and a little planning, you too could soon be campus bound.
Clearing is a process through which unfilled places at UK universities and colleges are matched with prospective undergraduates. So far this year, 45,495 applicants have taken the opportunity. Plenty more could follow, as Ucas accepts new applications until 20 September, and as students with a processed application you can make a Clearing choice until as late as 22 October.
"At this stage, they could be weeks away from starting a course and it's important to make the right decision," says Andrea Robertson, director of customer operations at Ucas. "We would expect to see students taking time to research the courses in Clearing and to call universities and colleges to discuss the requirements in detail."
Start by visiting the Ucas website, which lists Clearing vacancies. Make a note of any that interest you and visit those universities' websites to find out about the course content and structure. It's also important to research the university and its location. If you're still interested, give the institutions a call to chat about your situation. They may offer you a place. You don't have to accept or decline on the spot – you will be given a deadline, and it's a good idea to use that time to shop around, ideally gaining a range of provisional offers to weigh up. Visit these institutions if you can, either by attending an open day or by making arrangements to look around.
Choosing a university is a big decision, so don't make it on your own. Once you've done your research, talk to family, friends and careers advisers. Pop in to your previous school to talk to teachers and advisers there – they may be able to offer valuable insights.
There are some fantastic opportunities to consider. For example, the University of West London has places remaining in fashion design, law, business, and video production and film studies. Bournemouth University has a number of vacancies in its school of tourism. Birmingham City University has places in subjects including computer games technology, forensic computing and automotive engineering. Other reputable universities throughout the UK have spaces too – you might be surprised at the wide variety still on offer.
This is a different picture to recent years, where Clearing has been a quick process with course vacancies being snapped up in the days following the A-level results announcements. This year, universities report a slower process.
"The 2012 'Clearing period' has extended past its traditional two days," says Karen Pichlmann, head of admissions at Bournemouth University. "Students who thought they wouldn't go to university this year but now want to change their mind still have opportunities for starting later this month."
It's important that you look at the big picture when considering Clearing. You may need to make a relatively quick decision, but it must still be a carefully considered one. Take as much time as you can to reflect on the realities of living as a student, including financial considerations, academic and pastoral ones.
Accommodation, for example, can be tricky for late Clearing applicants as many halls of residence will already be full. Make some calls. Contact a university's accommodation services as places do become available at the last minute. Failing that, most universities can help students secure private accommodation nearby, and other students may post advertisements for spare rooms on Facebook or other university-affiliated social media sites.
Prospective undergraduates have absolutely nothing to lose by considering Clearing at that time – but if the right course at the right university with the right facilities isn't there to grab you, don't lose hope. A year out can be a valuable thing. "It's worth remembering that Ucas is now accepting applications for courses starting in 2013," says Robertson. "Clearing is not the only option."