For more than a decade the policy view has been that young people choose a university and course as rational economic actors in an information driven marketplace.

There’s not really any evidence for this – indeed there is copious qualitative evidence that they don’t – but I suppose if you see a market everywhere if you look at HE admissions you see a market.

In the 2020 cycle we ran a massive real-time inflationary experiment by raising (many) applicant grades, and increasing the supply of places, while prohibiting providers from moving their prices to match. A swift and brutal movement upmarket by applicants was widely predicted – driven by a very crude market incentive.

EDIT 24 SEPTEMBER: I’ve added data from the most recent statistical release. This release of data 28 days after JCQ results day completes the cycle of 2020 Clearing releases. The trends I identified when this article was first published continued throughout the Clearing period.

A sense of proportion

In the days after JCQ results day, here’s what’s actually been happening.

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This proportional plot looks at every cycle since 2011, with comparable days in the cycle shown on the bottom axis (do recall there is often an August Bank Holiday around this time, though not in Scotland). I’ve also done a version looking at the numbers.

At this top level we can get a sense of the “shape” of a UCAS cycle, and also see trends over multiple cycles. For instance, over the past decade between 50 and 60 per cent of applicants take a place based on their firm offer, and around 5 per cent take their insurance offer. The proportion placed during clearing has grown slightly (from 5 to 6 per cent) over this time.

Looking specifically at 2020, firm acceptances are roughly where we would expect them to be in a normal year, insurance acceptances are down about a percentage point, and clearing (main scheme) acceptances are about the same. If you were expecting any drastic changes in 2020 following the A level result revisions, you will be disappointed.

Those disappointments in full

Here’s a more detailed look at the last three years, by number rather than proportion:

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By default, you are looking at the only real 2020 specific artifact, a reduction in the number of applicants placed at their insurance choice during the cycle. These are the applicants who now have their (higher) CAGs rather than the calculated grades and meet the terms of their original firm offer. The advice from UCAS has been to self-release and then accept an offer from your original firm offer via clearing, which is why you don’t see a comparable increase in firm acceptances.

Applicants then accept their “clearing” offer (from their original firm choice course and provider) immediately, meaning they don’t show up as “free to be placed in clearing”. The atypical (but not exceptional in overall volume!) rise in applicants placed via clearing at this point in the cycle will include these students, along with those who held offers during this period.

It’s all late in the cycle for such movements, but we’re not hugely outside the scope of previous years.

What’s going on?

There is a great deal of fascinating qualitative research to be done on applicant decision making during the 2020 pandemic. We have no way of knowing what individual reasons will be, but we can offer a few suggestions based on what we understand from admissions staff and our own extrapolations.

Fundamentally, we are seeing a dash for certainty. If an applicant accepted a place on JCQ day or shortly after, it is likely that they would also have an option of a place in halls. First year undergraduates do tend to like being in halls anyway, adding the uncertainty of possible local lockdowns in future makes some of the other options (sharing a HMO two miles from campus with three people you’ve never met, commuting for the first few weeks) far less attractive, and uncertainty over in term work opportunities put the more expensive private halls out of the range of many students.

If you’ve got a place, and a place in halls, you have a sense of control over the next month or so that you’ve not had since the schools shut. Even if you could move up a couple of league table places with your new improved A level results, you would be scrambling to arrange a place to stay.

A similar effect is seen in the number of providers offering deferred places, plus bursaries. In 2020 the physical capacity of teaching spaces is another hard limit on recruitment. This could have been beaten if providers had been planning for expansion all summer, but for most of the summer there’ve been student numbers controls in place.

The hoover

As the likelihood of a fall in international applicants taking places became the dominant story over the summer, I – and many others – suspected that providers would attempt to fill these spaces with home students. In the dominant scenario (the “hoover effect” (other brands of vacuum cleaner are available)), it was felt that more selective providers would take students with lower entry grades, thus making the UCAS cycle much tougher on less selective providers.

There’s good and bad news on this front.

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The bad news for those looking to see the diversity of providers in the sector sustained, applicants offered a full range of choice, is that higher tariff providers have a proportionally greater share of acceptances at this point in the cycle than ever before. For those who believe that all students learn best in a Russell Group style environment, this may be the good news.

But the good news for the rest of us is that even though the proportions have changed, lower and medium tariff providers are up numerically (looking at home students only) over last year. The damage has been that some have not grown as fast as they may like in what shows every signs of being a bumper year, but at this broad level of analysis (which is all we can do so far) there is no sign of a cliff edge.

Thinking internationally

Things are different with international students – but again there is good and bad news, depending on how you see it.

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The system overall has seen another year on year expansion of non-EU students accepting places – and, as with previous years, nearly all of these extras have gone to high tariff providers. Numbers at low and medium tariff providers have shrunk slightly on last year, but we are in the hundreds rather than thousands.

What should be made very clear is that many of those international applicants who have accepted places have not yet paid deposits, and thus may not convert into actual paying students. This depends on a willingness to travel, and both global and national public health concerns.

What can we learn from all this?

The undergraduate student “marketplace” still isn’t a market. The criteria by which applicants make decisions to accept a place are not as closely coupled with prestige (however defined) as people like to think. That said, I think all of us (me included) underestimated the appetite for HE that would exist this year – and the appetite for HE in all forms.

So this is – as things stand, a number working days after JCQ results day – a positive story for the sector. The start of term (and, for finance teams, 14 days after the start of term) are a long way off, and in this year of all years anything could happen in the interim. But our massive experiment appears to be demonstrating, beyond all reasonable doubt, that even better A levels and unlimited funds for high-cost places do not turn many applicants’ heads. If universities had been give time to prepare for expansion would this have changed? Probably not in a single year.

Decisions on where and what to study are made for very personal reasons, and this is the way that it should stay.

Other looks across multiple UCAS cycles – deferrals.

3 responses to “Clearing 2020: applicant choice isn’t affected by market incentives

  1. Given the trumpets of doom being sounded by sector lobbyists not less than a month ago, and again only a week ago, one might think that the HE sector may become the boy who cried wolf…

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