University clearing: a view for and against

Can clearing can give you a second chance to decide what you want to study? ImageFlow/Shutterstock

A-level results day sees highs and lows for many thousands of students across the country waiting to receive their grades. For every jubilant smile relieved to have secured a place at university, there is also the anxious grimace of the student who hasn’t quite made the grade.

Last year 41,530 students went into clearing – the process universities use to fill spaces they have left on courses with those who didn’t make it into their first choice – meaning roughly 10% of all students found their way to university this way. But does the system actually work?

Below, two experts give their thoughts on the highs and lows of the clearing system:

‘The current system needs reforming’

Elizabeth Houghton is a PhD candidate at Lancaster University, whose research looks at how “marketised” higher education can impact student choice

The advice around clearing is consistently framed as “don’t panic” – but with increasing evidence of the difference in job prospects and salaries of graduates from different ranks of universities – it is easy to understand why a sudden change could come as a shock to the system.

The reality of the university admissions system is that students must sell themselves to universities, but universities also need to sell themselves to students. And while clearing phone lines are often presented as “helplines”, they are also in reality sales lines.

The onus is on applicants to scramble for places in a “highly competitive environment” when universities actually need students – and the revenue they bring. Especially now the cap on student numbers is off. For some universities clearing is one way to bump up intake and income.

Many university clearing centres are staffed by current students. wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Instead of the current system, we need to develop an effective admissions policy that gives students the chance to apply to university with the most important information: their grades. This reformed system would follow the logic of clearing, and give students the chance to apply for university after they have received their grades – taking some of the panic out of the process.

But it is clear we are still someway off that point, given the way clearing currently operates. This raises some timely questions for anyone serious about the need for student choice in higher education – whether it operates in market terms of not.

“Clearing is a major asset to students”

Bhavik Patel is a biochemist at the University of Brighton, who came through clearing to study at the university

I know better than most about the clearing process and have seen firsthand how the experience has changed dramatically over the years. When I went through clearing ten years ago, it was nerve-racking and you didn’t know how to approach universities.

Back then, it was often shrouded in a dogma of failure. For universities, being in clearing was seen as a sign of weakness, that they were unable to fill course spaces. But now, clearing is a major asset to students.

So as clearing comes around again this year, students should be seeing it as an opportunity, not a setback.

Clearing shouldn’t be viewed as a second rate process. Matej Kastelic/shutterstock

It provided me with a second chance in life and made me more focused. It made me determined to prove I was better than the grades. This determination led to be winning the GlaxoSmithKline Emerging Scientist of the Year Award. And in 2015 I won the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Science Award, which is presented to a scientist with a proven record of independent research and published work that shows outstanding promise – not bad for someone who didn’t make the grades.

My career has seen me travel to different countries working with some of the top names in science. Without clearing, none of this would have happened. It has truly helped to shape me into the scientist I am now.

From being a process where students would be judged, clearing is now the norm and has become a vibrant process of opportunity, where students may even obtain places on courses at universities they seldom felt they could achieve.