Clearing 2012: How wrong was I, and why?

Back in July, I wrote a post confidently predicting that this year’s Clearing would be less interesting than was widely expected, Somebody, somewhere will have a bad experience in Clearing because somebody, somewhere always does, but there is no reason to expect a pattern or trend. Those who do badly this year may do well next time. Life staggers on much as before.

Since that post, anyone paying attention will have noticed about the unmitigated disaster that many institutions have faced. It seems I was too sanguine.

Now my boss regards me as the most pessimistic man he knows. My previous boss regarded me as the most pessimistic man she knew (and I doubt that she has met anyone more pessimistic since). I am proud of this reputation. So although I can live with being wrong, the thought that I might have been too optimistic is particularly galling for me. For that reason I am going to spend some time explaining that I was less wrong than you might think, before moving on to consider why I was as wrong as I was.

So firstly, let’s look at some numbers in perspective. The key report seems to have been this recently published by UCAS, which shows a 54,200 year-on-year drop in acceptances by year of entry. At that point, Clearing was far from over (my institution, like many, is still recruiting now and had always planned to recruit to the end of last week), but the broad shape of the thing was clear. There is no way that applications in the back end of September are going to transform the position. 54,200 sounds like a lot – indeed it is more than a dozen good-sized universities-worth – but I think some perspective is needed on this number too.

Acceptances by Region of Institution (source: UCAS)


These data are based on UCAS’ normal practice of quoting the cycle of application rather than the year of entry, so they aren’t strictly comparable to the year-of-entry figures in the UCAS report I linked to. Still you can see the point I am trying to make. 50,000-odd fewer acceptances takes us back to the dark days of 2007. Now I admit that I am old, and what hair I have left is grey, but I don’t think I am unique in remembering 2007. What I remember about 2007 is that it was a record year at the time. We haven’t needed to create a dozen large universities since then to cope with the extra demand, and I remain unclear that we will have to close a dozen to deal with the decline.

Moreover if you look at the UCAS data on deferral, it is clear that one reason we are down on entry expectations this year is because of the large number of students that chose to enter early.

Deferred UK and EU acceptances by UCAS Cycle (source: UCAS)

So by historic standards we are 14,000 acceptances down this year because the students have already enrolled and are now entering their second years. If 2011 applicants were 14,000 more than expected, and 2012 14,000 less, then that one factor alone counts for more than half of the 54,200 in UCAS’ headline figure. Besides, if a business can go bust because the customers part with their money earlier I don’t think we should have much respect for its managers.

The rest of the difference between years is down to the behaviour of applicants in Clearing. According to UUK, there were 167,000-odd unplaced applicants eligible to enter Clearing on 21 September 2012. There are always a lot of unplaced applicants in Clearing, but whereas there were far more places available in Clearing this year than last, institutions have only managed to fill about the same number of places in Clearing (2,800 more placed, leaving the English institutions 27,400 short). So applicants are unusually reluctant to take their second-choice institutions. I have said a few times now that this risk existed, but I confess I never really believed it would happen. So on this point – grudgingly – I admit to having been too confident, even if I was careful to cover my back by pointing to some downside risks.

The other big story has been the elite institutions apparently caught short by AAB. Some are trying to spin this as a big embarrassment for the Government, but in fact it has always been clear that if some elite institutions managed to recruit more AABs, it would be at the expense of other elite institutions. There just weren’t that many AABs outside the elite part of the sector in the first place. It was equally clear that the Government shifted from the original estimate of 65,000 AABs quoted in the White Paper to the 85,000 finally used by HEFCE explicitly because they wanted to be cautious about the overall numbers recruited this year: they deliberately chose to err on the side of overestimating AABs (see paragraph 15 of this HEFCE document).

So here, the story is of an unexpected degree of success for the Government. I don’t mind failing to foresee success. And indeed if some institutions have lost as many students as reported, this is a great success for the Government. These large losses will ensure that elite institutions don’t take their recruitment for granted in future, whilst the shift to ABB next year should ensure that a slightly different set of institutions suffer the pain at that point. This policy is well on track.

So now I have done my best to minimise the extent of my mistakes, why was I wrong?

If you look at the data by region in my first table, you can see that the growth since the entirely arbitrary date of 2004 has been at different rates in different regions. The Eastern region has grown most rapidly, from a rather small base. London has also grown very rapidly from a high base. The North East and East Midlands have lagged behind. Well-understood demographic change (and the very different participation profile in London) account for most of this difference, although poor job prospects since the 2008 crash have also played a role. I am writing from a London-based perspective and in my own institution we have filled some – if not all – of the additional places we won under core/margin. We might have wished to do better but we are perfectly OK.

Status plays a role as well as location. Another factor may therefore be that my current employer and my last employer were both unfashionable London universities. For us it is routine to keep recruiting right through to the end of the Clearing process. Even where undergraduate numbers may have been filled (in the years since 2008) we would have stayed open for PG and part-time recruitment. That has given this year a very ‘business as usual’ feel to me, which it may not have had for some other colleagues at higher-ranked institutions.

Most important is to recognise how little has changed. Students’ choice to study last year should have been – and was – anticipated. The lower volume of applications this year therefore should have been – and was – anticipated. Almost all the risks we planned for have not come to pass. Certainly at my institution we have seen no change in the proportion of our offers being accepted or the proportion of our firm accepts turning up to enrol. We have not seen sudden or dramatic changes in application patterns or student tastes. The main cycle of applications tracked closely against historical norms. We have seen a change in applicant behaviour in Clearing. Perhaps this tells us how close to the edge universities are operating, but I think not. I confidently predict that no university anywhere will go bust on account of this. Rather it shows what sheltered lives we lead, that people have found this relatively minor issue so shocking.

So how wrong was I, and why? Fundamentally I am unwilling to admit that I was very wrong at all. I think in retrospect we will recognise that the recent press coverage of this year’s Clearing has been overblown. Competition for the ABBs next year will be sharp, and as every year a few institutions will have a bad experience in Clearing. But life staggers on, much as before.

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