When this year's A-level results are released tomorrow, the list of courses with Clearing vacancies will also be revealed. The process is already under way in Scotland, and this is the chance for students who haven't achieved the grades required for their preferred course to find the best option for them. And the good news? There are plenty of places still up for grabs.
Every year, the number of students who find a place in Clearing make up about a tenth of all university acceptances. Last year, almost 56,000 students were accepted through the system, which is an equivalent number to, say, half of the population of towns such as Eastbourne or Rotherham.
Applications for university places began last autumn. Most students had applied for places before the first deadline of 15 January this year, and many of them also had conditional or unconditional offers by then. Any applications received after 30 June go automatically into Clearing and the system begins after results are received by students tomorrow.
In recent years, the importance of Clearing for universities has grown, as the university sector has become even more competitive, and with more than 500,000 students applying for undergraduate places in the UK last year, there is usually a late scramble for places when results do not come up to expectations.
For universities, this is a major opportunity for them to top up their numbers and increase their income from tuition fees. For students, however, Clearing can mean the difference between getting on to the course they really want or not – or even going on to higher education at all.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) says that students should remain optimistic if they find themselves in the process. "There's every reason to be positive if you find yourself in Clearing this year," says Steve Jeffree, chief operating officer at Ucas.
"Thousands of courses are available and there's no necessity to stick with the same subjects you applied for originally. However, students should keep in mind that admissions officers may want to explore your reasons for choosing something different. In fact, it's wise to be well-prepared ahead of any conversations with universities and colleges about Clearing vacancies. Students should ask the right questions about the course content and structure, with the aim of proving that they're likely to succeed after three years of study," he says.
In the past academic year – 2012-13 – the number of applications actually fell by around 20,000, largely due to the increase in tuition fees, which were capped at £9,000 a year. Competition is likely to be tougher this year in terms of demand for places. Universities UK, which represents all higher education institutions, says that "considerably more" students will apply this year than there are places available. Competitive will remain strong, with popular courses continuing to attract many more applicants than available places.
Under the current system, universities are restricted to taking a certain number of students, as limits are set by the Government to control the cost of tuition fee loans and maintenance support provided to students. Each university is given a limit on the number of undergraduate students it can admit.
The student number controls (SNCs) vary across the UK. In England, one major difference this year is the Government allowing universities to admit as many students as they want, provided they have achieved grades at ABB or higher at A-level or equivalent.
Fiona Waye, policy adviser at Universities UK, says: "It's vital to remember that universities are aware of the importance of ensuring a high quality student experience – for example, it would be detrimental to have overcrowded labs or seminars on science degree courses. Universities take these factors into account when considering whether to increase their numbers.
"For applicants not expecting grades at ABB plus, the situation should be much the same as last year. If an applicant has met the conditions of their offer, their place will be confirmed. They can find this out by looking on the Ucas website on the Track system tomorrow. Universities try very hard to make sure as many applicants as possible will know immediately whether they have obtained their place or not.
"If not, or an applicant fails to get any offers, and can be flexible and has reasonable exam results, then there is still a good chance that they will find another course through Clearing, although it is not possible to predict how many places will be available."
Last year, the number of acceptances through Clearing increased by 4,600 to 55,700, the highest number ever recorded. All vacancies will be published between mid-August and late-September on the Ucas website. Applicants can ensure they are aware of the process by looking at the Clearing section on the Ucas website.
For applicants achieving better results than expected, Ucas will again be operating its Adjustment service. This allows applicants who have exceeded their conditional firm offer to look for a place at an alternative institution. Last year, 1,300 students gained places this way.
Waye also says applicants don't have to wait for a confirmed place to apply for student loans. "Applicants may want to apply for their loan now, to prevent any delay in funding, and this is simply amended if a student ends up going to another university if the tuition fee is different," she says.
In addition, starting from results day tomorrow, Universities UK will be providing a concise daily overview of the Clearing process, through a series of charts which will reflect the latest developments. Students can follow the updated charts every day on Universities UK's website (universitiesuk.org.uk).
Meanwhile, most universities view Clearing as an important part of their recruitment process. Dr Paul Smith, deputy vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University (LMU), says: "The Clearing system is important for universities and our advice is not to panic. Students who do not get their first or second choice courses because of their grades should look at courses at other universities on the Track system on the Ucas website. We've been told that we can recruit up to 3 per cent more students than our SNC this year, as last year there was a fall in applications. Those students who do better than expected can also look for places on courses they might not have considered.
"There has been a degree of volatility in the system in the past few years, and some courses have seen an increase in applications. Sports sciences and biomedical sciences have become more popular, as has business management, but arts and humanities still attract a high number of applications. Some students are thinking more vocationally when choosing courses, but it's still important to choose a course that you're enthusiastic about."
The university, which has more than 28,000 students, expects to recruit a large proportion of its intake through Clearing this year.
The University of East Anglia (UEA) adopts a similar approach. "Universities have traditionally used Clearing to top up numbers on their courses, and some years ago, it was seen as 'scraping the barrel', but that has now changed," says David Giles, head of admissions at UEA. "We now recruit a large number of students through Clearing, and although there has been some increases in vocational courses, which confer professional registration, such as some engineering or healthcare courses, we still have a strong demand for our arts and humanities courses."
Unlike LMU and the UEA, some universities have been more reluctant to talk about their intake through Clearing. For example, officials at Southampton University have declined to discuss the number of applications they accept through Clearing. Many of the top universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, Durham and Bristol, can expect most of their places to be filled through conditional and unconditional offers and could see Clearing as being beneath them.
However, Bristol took an extra 1,000 students last year as it wanted to expand its intake, so more of the top universities may be looking for students through Clearing this year.
'Have a clear plan, be organised and be open to other courses'
For Connor Hall, a second-year student in law and European legal systems, who won a place at the University of East Anglia in 2011, Clearing was the best option.
Connor had applied to the University of East Anglia after attending an open day. Both his first and insurance choices were maths courses there. Later, he realised that the courses might not suit him, and Connor began to consider his other options.
When his A-level results weren't quite what he needed, he decided to apply through Clearing to study law – something which he had taken at A-level and enjoyed.
"Although it was disappointing not to get the results I hoped for, I had already decided I might be better studying law," he says. "By applying through Clearing on results day, I secured a place at UEA.
"Although it only took a phone call to Ucas and then to UEA, it's still a little nerve-racking waiting for the confirmation email."
He's now preparing to spend his third year abroad in Belgium, and feels that Clearing offered him the chance to find the right course and make the most of his time at university. "People have a negative perception of Clearing, but it wasn't a bad thing for me. I'm on a course that many people apply for and compete to be on each year. I wouldn't change my experience with Clearing at all."
Connor's top tips
- Have someone with you, they can keep you calm, and provide support if you're not successful.
- Have a plan and be organised, be open to other courses at the same university, and know their requirements.
- Make the most of Clearing, it's not just a back-up. If you change your mind about your course, it's a chance to do what you really want to do.