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Why a Considered Approach to Clearing Is More Important Than Ever

16/08/2016 16:21 | Updated 16 August 2016

It's August and for thousands of young people across the UK picking up their exam results that means one thing - decision time. And I have a feeling that making those decisions is going to be tougher than ever before, particularly for those who may have not received the grades they'd expected.

Don't get me wrong, making choices about the future is never simple. But if I were an 18 year old looking at my A Level results and wondering "what next?" I'd be very confused right now.

Just a few days ago, one education story dominated the national press - the fact that over a third of millennials who went to university now say they regret their decision due to the debt they find themselves lumbered with. With the average debt for a three year degree now estimated at around the £53,000 mark, it isn't really a surprising sentiment.

Together with the fact that maintenance grants have also been scrapped - there is no mistaking that financial considerations are now a significant and intrinsic part of the higher education decision making process.

Weighing up this evidence it is clear to see why, for many now deciding what to do with their future, the scales might start tipping against going away to university to study for a degree.

But hold on a second. Updates from the National Student Survey show university student satisfaction continues to hover at 86%, and according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) the proportion of UK university leavers going on to work six months after graduating has hit a record high.

To study or not to study - based on such conflicting headlines it really is swings and roundabouts.

On top of all this, of course, there's the perpetual 'earning debate'. Do graduates earn more than non-graduates? I saw a headline recently which made me smile in relation to this - 'Graduates might be earning less than non-graduates'. The overwhelmingly non-committal statement was followed by the ground-breaking revelation that 'gender, parental income, university, and subject choice have impacts on earning power' when it comes to degrees and salary.

It perfectly sums up my view on the matter and that is, when it comes to deciding on whether or not to study for a degree there really is no right or wrong answer. There will always be pros and cons - the answer boils down to an individual's personal circumstances, beliefs and ambitions.

Everyone is different and it's those differences that should dictate decisions, not a headline, statistic or expectation.

So what exactly does this mean for those individuals currently faced with a range of options ahead of them, especially those who perhaps didn't get the results they were expecting?

In practical terms it means don't panic and don't rush. Choosing what, how and where to study is such a personal decision that it shouldn't be a knee-jerk reaction based on external influence or a temptation to 'go with what's expected'.

And that, in a way, is what concerns me most about clearing.

This year, around 60,000 students are expected to enter clearing - it is by far the most likely and obvious scenario for those who, for whatever reason, find themselves looking for a course.

I say 'for whatever reason' because the range of reasons for entering clearing will vary dramatically, from those who didn't get high enough grades to those who did much better than expected or indeed, those who have found that decisions made a year ago no longer appeal.

The process provides a valuable service and undoubtedly helps set many on the path to achieving their academic ambition. My problem with clearing isn't that it exists or that it does anything wrong. It's simply that so many individuals enter the system purely because it is the obvious 'next step' and not necessarily because it is the best one.

There have never been so many excellent options for young people in terms of higher education paths and that means the days of having to rush into a choice or miss out are gone.

Clearing will provide an answer for many, and don't forget that many universities also accept direct applications for many weeks to come.

For others, something more vocational like a graduate apprenticeship could be a better fit - particularly for those who found the academic structure and environment of school and college a setting which didn't bring out their strengths.

Online distance learning is another opportunity, perhaps best suited to those who do have financial concerns based on the cost of 'going away to uni', those who are interested in entering employment and studying at the same time, or simply individuals who want more flexibility around when and where they study to fit around other commitments.

Increasingly, students also have the opportunity to pursue their ambitions through 'blended learning' - a model which marries the flexibility of online study with a proportion of condensed, face-to-face tuition and access to campus facilities.

And remember, all of these options usually now offer staggered intakes so there doesn't have to be a mad dash - students have the power to set their own pace on the choices they make.

In highlighting the breadth of choice available, my intention is not to add to the confusion - nor is it to push one opportunity over another. My ideal is simply that those considering higher education understand that they have choices and that the factors they really need to consider will always be unique to them - forget what anyone else says.

That being said, I would urge any students reading this in the wake of results day to consider one statistic that really does chime with me. In 2015 a poll conducted by YouGov found that one in ten people regretted their education choices because they'd made those decisions based on 'poor advice' from others.

By taking stock of your own circumstances, learning style and ambitions and taking a considered approach to the range of possibilities ahead, I hope you won't fall into this trap.

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