UK university clearing set to be the busiest ever, experts warn

Rachel Hall Universities editor
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA</span>
Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

A sharp rise in students applying to UK universities through clearing – months later than the traditional admissions cycle – is paving the way for the biggest-ever scramble for places, with A-level results this week set to become a “pressure cooker” day, experts have warned.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) has predicted a record 80,000 students will find places through the clearing process this summer, up from 73,325 last year. Clare Marchant, its chief executive, says that it will “probably [be] the busiest yet”.

Once the last-ditch option for students who had received poorer grades than expected, the weeks-long clearing process traditionally matches students who have failed to make it on their chosen course with a university that still has places unfilled.

Amid uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic this year, including cancelled gap years due to travel restrictions, the number of students who have applied to enter university directly through clearing – instead of via Ucas in late 2019 or early 2020 – has risen by 22% to reach 8,670 compared with this time last year, Ucas statistics showed.

Exams were cancelled in England and Scotland this summer as a result of Covid-19, and teachers were asked to supply predicted grades and pupil rankings, which were then moderated using a statistical model designed to ensure consistency. There was outrage after the system resulted in nearly a quarter of recommended results in Scotland being downgraded. English A-level pupils are set to see even greater net downgrades of nearly 40%, the Guardian revealed on Friday.

Clearing has been growing in popularity as students wait to receive their grades before making choices and universities make more places available, including on 4,516 courses at 17 of the elite Russell Group universities. This year clearing opened on 6 July for students who don’t hold an offer to a university and will be available to all students on A-level results day, Thursday 13 August.

It is likely to be especially popular this year as school-leavers are looking to avoid entering the job market during the coronavirus economic downturn. Several universities, including Leeds Beckett and London Metropolitan, said they are seeing an increase in applications directly to their university from students who already have A-levels.

Ucas reported a late surge in applications before the end of the main admissions cycle on 30 June, dispelling fears that students would be reluctant to study online and would take gap years or find jobs instead of going to university this year.

Experts warned that the late application surge, cancelled gap years and few deferrals could lead to an especially chaotic day for school-leavers when they receive their A-level results. There could be fierce competition for places if English results mirror the downgraded results in Scottish highers, meaning students could fall short of their university offer conditions.

Mark Corver, an admissions expert and founder of dataHE, predicted a panicked “pressure cooker” this year. “We would read [the increase in direct to clearing applications] as another signal – along with the strong January to June applications, and fewer withdrawing – that the system is running hot. There is evidence of demand and there is probably going to be a shortage of places for UK students. Calculated grades, which will inevitably give wrong results for some, simply adds more pressure,” he said.

Related: 'Follow your head and your heart': clearing advice from the experts

Gary Davies, pro vice-chancellor at London Metropolitan, said that last year over 60% of the students his university recruited during clearing did not apply during the main admissions cycle. Many applied directly to the university, bypassing the Ucas process entirely. “Higher education has traditionally been a port in a storm during a recession, because people think if there aren’t jobs around, let’s go to uni,” said Davies.

Universities including Greenwich and Leeds Beckett said they have seen substantial increases in the number of students already holding an offer who have registered to be fast-tracked when clearing places become available on A-level results day.

Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said: “We’ve been seeing for the last three to four years that applications have been moving later, and there are more applications that come in after the Ucas deadline.”

The University of East Anglia’s academic director of admissions, Richard Harvey, said that direct-to-clearing appeals to students as it is less stressful than the main admissions, and can result in better outcomes. “It’s a hassle to apply – all that visiting campuses. If there are plenty of places then why rush?”