Why Students Deserve Better than Clearing

26/07/2016 17:08 | Updated 26 July 2016

Like many traditions we've just become used to, the Clearing window for finding a university course has become an oddity that's looking more and more outdated. While the bulk of mainstream applicants get offers for three or four year degree places based on their predicted exam results, the rest get to scramble for what's left. Not a great use of resources in universities having to manage the process - and much worse, not a good experience for the new students as they embark on a whole new phase in their lives.

But the British summer tradition of Clearing keeps rolling on for nervy applicants and their parents and the teams of staff manning the phones, putting in overtime, trying to squeeze out as much value for their institution as possible. A record number of students chose to go through the Clearing route last year, more than 61,000, so it's not a minor part of the applications system.

Back in 2004 Professor Steven Schwartz, then vice-chancellor of Brunel University, called for a Post Qualification Admissions system, as a fairer approach, pointing to the stats that around half of all predicted grades are wrong. Students might have low predicted grades for different reasons, it might be because of poor relationships with teachers, a history of issues in school they were trying to overcome. But even if they've managed to transform their academic performance, they can miss out on places at more selective universities. And similarly, if perceived results are too optimistic, there's the shock, disappointment and disillusion that may roll into their student experience where ever they find themselves.

We're in a very different world from 2004, and one that makes it even more important that the approach to Clearing is shaken up. It needs to become a central part of the applications process for everyone, a service to place students with lower and higher than predicted grades. While the negative connotations of 'Clearing' as part of a clear-out of spare places remains, the truth is very different. Universities are making a much greater range of courses available via Clearing, launching new ones, recognising the value of promoting themselves to new 'customers', or as us academics prefer 'learners'. Because they know students are getting smarter when it comes to using the system, taking advantage of the flexibility it offers for 'trading up' for better options, for last minute changes in plans.

For universities, Clearing is - or should be - an essential part of the recruitment cycle that demonstrates a commitment to offering a fairer system of access for more people, for the rising numbers of BTEC applicants and mature students. And no-one should be left feeling they're among the also-rans, outside of the mainstream. The Clearing system should be seen as a way for more students to get the best option, that they're not being channelled into one route with no going back.

So there's an issue of perceptions. The Clearing 'brand' is tainted by its past. A new name is needed - something that actually reflects the realities of new opportunity and flexibility, that students making late choices are just as wanted and have the same potential as any other. Then there's the issue of Clearing as an experience. It can be a negative one in the context of that sense of the being part of the secondary application process, ringing round the hotlines, being offered courses on a 'first-come, first-served' basis or being shifted across to other leftover programmes. It's an experience that has the potential to set the tone for attitudes to people's courses and their institution, as part of something half-hearted, unwanted. It can affect a student's levels of commitment, just at the time when they're going to need to make a step-change in their approach to studying and adding to the risk of dropping out.

New Clearing - what should it be called? - could be the best signal of all that HE has changed. It's no longer a conveyor belt for the standard students who've been able to carefully follow the 'good' A-level route, but interested in diversity and the different qualities people bring, everyone willing and able to take on higher studying give something to university life and their communities.