A slower clearing in 2021?

Twenty-eight days on from results day, Richard O'Kelly reflects on a curious 2021 Clearing

Richard O’Kelly is Head of Data and Analysis at UCAS.

A month on, results day for many students across the UK is now firmly in the rear-view mirror with more than ever set to start university of college. However, Clearing continues.

Universities and colleges are still recruiting for courses that will soon begin enrolling. As has been the case for most of this admissions cycle for full-time undergraduates though, there continues to be key elements of the cycle that make 2021 stand out from recent years.

The resilience of the sector and demand for study has surpassed predictions made 18 months ago at the start of the pandemic, when there was widespread concern (especially about deferrals, which didn’t materialise) about students turning their back on traditional courses and not accepting a different student experience.

It’s now swung the other way. Overall acceptance totals are broadly similar in 2020 and 2021 at a shade over half a million, with both noticeably up on 2019’s 495,620. There’s also been a significant surge in demand for apprenticeship information through UCAS’ CareerFinder.

Throw the implications of Brexit during the start of 2020 into the mix and it has become an incredible narrative that few would’ve predicted.

High grades slow down Clearing

August saw much debate about the increase in students achieving higher grades and the knock-on effect for undergraduate acceptances. The overwhelmingly positive news for most was that these grades enabled thousands more students to be placed on their first choice of course.

Today’s figures, which give us a snapshot 28 days after results day, reconfirm that – with 420,750 students securing their first choice, up 5% on the equivalent point in 2020. It is also clear that these grades have given more students the opportunity to study at higher tariff providers, who have shown flexibility to expand their intakes to collectively accept 175,920 students (up 3% on 2020), as they also did last year.

Another consequence of higher grades means we’ve seen a much slower Clearing in 2021 than usual. It’s a relatively straightforward equation that more students accepted onto their first choice equals fewer students looking at Clearing as their route onto a course. We still expect numbers to grow from the current 47,010 who have got a place through Clearing, to the end of the cycle, particularly at medium and lower tariff providers who typically have more older, local and later appliers.

More applicants are staying in the (Clearing) pool this summer

What is slightly less straightforward is understanding why fewer people so far have gone through Clearing in 2021, when there are more potential acceptances in the pool of ‘Free to be placed in Clearing’ or ‘FTBPIC’ (145,440 compared to 116,650 in 2020), and who these people are.

Every year, there are many reasons why students who apply don’t end up with a place. Often, it’s a result of changes in personal circumstance during the year or reapplying and/or re-assessing their options after receiving their grades. With so much change in society and students’ own lives this year (many may have not applied at all if this was a ‘typical year’ with fewer restrictions on day-to-day life), this pool could naturally be expected to increase.

Couple that uncertainty with the headline applicant totals for the year, which are around 20,000 higher, expansion of the FTBPIC pool is perhaps unsurprising.

October deadline courses, which include many of the most selective programmes in the UK, saw record interest this year. Some students will have narrowly missed their offers for these courses, perhaps just by one grade, and won’t have secured their first-choice course if places are limited. It’s conceivable that many of these (still very high achieving) students are prepared to apply again next year, perhaps retaking a single subject, rather than explore another option in Clearing.

EU students become more selective?

Elsewhere within the FTBPIC pool, there are several noticeable trends. Total EU applicant numbers have fallen by 44% this year, which has contributed to 56% fewer EU acceptances than in 2020. And while the number of EU applicants FTBPIC was just a touch higher last year, the proportion of all EU applicants without a place in 2021 is much larger – over 40% of those applying in 2021 don’t have a place, compared to just over a quarter in 2020. A bigger share of 2021 EU students than before appear to be ok with not getting a UK place this year at all if they didn’t receive their first choice – and are possibly looking at their options in their home country or elsewhere internationally.

From a widening access and participation perspective though, the proportions of 18 year old UK students from each of the POLAR quintiles who are FTBPIC is largely on trend with the number of applicants. This is against the backdrop of record levels of students from POLAR quintile 1 (the most disadvantaged backgrounds) being accepted.

There are noticeable increases in the number of older applicants who are FTBPIC though. This links to the rise in applicants throughout the year, many of whom will have applied to competitive nursing courses. With older students more likely to stay local, if they aren’t accepted onto a specific course, it stands to reason that they wouldn’t reapply for another course and so would remain in the FTBPIC pool.

Forward to 2022

What this means for the 2022 cycle, which today opens in earnest with students able to submit applications, is that it’s shaping up to be another year unlike any other. More students have already deferred starting their course from 2021, though this represents less than half a percentage point increase in the proportion of deferrals, to just over 6%. It can also be expected that there will be more high achieving reappliers, as well as the continued increase in the UK 18 year old population.

However, (recent) history tells us that the sector will adapt and be flexible, throughout the cycle, including right up to Confirmation and Clearing, as we saw this year. Students should continue to apply for the courses they want to study at, however competitive they may be. The initial five application choices give opportunities to be both aspirational and realistic as do exploring parallel opportunities such as degree apprenticeships, something that we’ll be highlighting to students in the coming months as another Covid-hit cohort prepare for their next steps as we all continue to emerge from the pandemic.

One response to “A slower clearing in 2021?

  1. “the sector will adapt and be flexible” – overworked teaching staff will be even more overworked….

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