This Thursday, the agonising wait for hundreds of thousands of students across the country will be over. No, I'm not talking about the return of Celebrity Big Brother, but the farce of A-level results day.
This annual spectacle has become a predictable feast in our summer media diet. Breakfast TV will broadcast some pretty young things nervously opening their envelopes to find they've got straight A grades. The newspapers will be filled with novelty case studies of the triplets who all got the same results for the same subjects for the same university places. And doubtless some child prodigy will make us all feel inferior with their A* grades in Further Maths and Astrophysics. If results, worsen it will be a sign that our education system is going to the dogs. If they improve, it will be further evidence that exams are easier these days.
But away from the bright lights of the TV cameras will be hundreds of thousands of capable, but unfortunate, students who've found themselves in the higher education sector's very own version of the bargain basement: clearing.
Clearing: it's the word that strikes fear into the heart of every university applicant. That awful moment when you realise you've missed your grades for your first and second choice courses and engage in a frantic competition with hundreds of thousands of other people in the same boat to bag a coveted place. According to UCAS, the UK's higher education admissions service, over 209,000 applicants are expected to compete for just over 46,000 places. Over 150,000 applicants will lose out altogether.
The official word is that finding yourself in clearing isn't all doom and gloom. Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, informs us that clearing is expected to be no worse than last year. There's also lots of good advice to hand via UCAS, a multitude a websites and in Thursday newspaper supplements. The advice is pretty simple: be prepared, do your research and don't just pick any old course.
But the reality is that clearing is a cruel process that does a real disservice to applicants. For all the good advice that's available, the overriding message in clearing is 'hurry, hurry, hurry'. It's crazy. Rather than taking their time to think through their options, their aspirations and where to spend what are held to be 'the best days of their lives', the fierce competition for places leaves applicants making hasty choices. Those who lack the advantage of well informed parents or good information, advice and guidance will be at a disadvantage.
Many applicants who find places through clearing end up very happy with the outcome. After a good fresher's week, the disappointment of missing out on their earlier choices will be a dim and distant memory. But for those who end up making bad choices as a result of their quick decisions, the cost is very high. Some will simply muddle on and make the best of it. Others will drop out at great cost to themselves, their university and the taxpayer. And all because we have an admissions system that's designed to fit around the timetables that are convenient for schools, colleges, examination boards and university admissions offices.
Radical reform of our university admissions system is required. It's not just the clearing system that's broken, it's the whole process. Why is it that we even ask applicants to apply for a university place before they've got their grades? Surely it would make more sense for applicants to pick their courses once they know they've met the entry requirements? This would also have the added advantage of giving the 3,000 or so bright state educated students identified by the Sutton Trust, who get the grades for our most selective universities but choose not to apply, the confidence of knowing that they can if they wish to do so.
Moving to a so called 'post qualification applications' system, where applicants apply once they have their results has been considered before. The last Labour government toyed with the idea for most of their time in office, but were never prepared to take on the vested interests that prefer the convenience of the current process. The Coalition Government's recent white paper on higher education, 'Students at the Heart of the System', has raised the prospect again.
Changing the system would not be without difficulty. It would mean revising the school and college year, the university year, examinations timetabling and the UCAS process. But if the Government is serious about putting students at the heart of the system it will opt for radical reform and consign the university bargain basement to the dustbin of history.