Clearing gets a bad rap. Critics see clearing as a “bums-on-seats” exercise in which institutions seek to up their student intake and income.
Adjustment is no longer available from 2022 entry. Adjustment encourages disadvantaged young people to trade up their A-level results to more selective providers – which is admirable but was scarcely utilised by applicants. Instead, those with better exam results than expected can self-release into clearing. Clearing is when a student did not meet the conditions of their firm or insurance offer, or when they have decided they no longer want to go to them.
For students, going through the clearing process can feel stigmatising. For all sorts of reasons I will unpick. Though it is a few years old, and a lot has happened in the interim, there was a 2016 The Student Room survey where over half the respondents said they would be embarrassed to use this route, and 48 per cent of students who had gone through clearing hid it from their university friends. A further 19 per cent said clearing is “for people who are desperate to still get into university.”
I know that many students – some first-in-family, working-class, care experienced, or estranged students are desperate to just get to university – any university. Going through clearing can facilitate this desire – this ‘desperation’. I don’t think that it’s stigmatising to talk about this. At least – it shouldn’t be. And it shouldn’t be stigmatised to do it either.
For love or money
Many of us wrote in our personal statements about our love for our discipline and admiration for the institution. So clearing – where applicants frantically search for an institution just weeks before enrollment with no accommodation and potentially no knowledge of the course, the institution, or the city, sounds to many like a vulgar realisation of that marketised education conveyor belt mentality.
And yes – I scoff at ministerial directives that we MUST ensure an undergraduate degree means higher salaries (not least because of the hierarchical values this places on different types of labour – but that’s another blog). I have grimaced at the Tory leadership contenders pledging to scrap degrees that won’t provide high salaries. I like and retweet tweets that wax lyrical about the value of education for the inherent good of education. We’ve all read David Willetts’ A University Education and nodded along as he lists the various ways higher education can improve one as a person and as a citizen – forget the by-product of individual higher earning! It is romantic and virtuous to encourage applicants to think this way.
But it was only once I was at my second university that I really began to understand who I was and what values I had – and by this point, I had two degrees. It was a chance encounter with someone from Wonkhe that switched my focus from academic critical theory – which I was good at but never gave me that fulfilled feeling – toward more concrete social, political, and economic policy, which (I hope) I am good at and a job that I get immense satisfaction from.
Whether I went through clearing or not, there is a very slim chance that at 18, I would have been able to conceive that working for a higher education policy thinktank is where I would be happiest – first because I didn’t know this job existed; second, because I had no one to express this to; and third, even if I did, I don’t think they would have known how to help me.
My career trajectory is a perfect example of my argument: I had to go through university and be exposed to higher education to know that I was invested in it. And, actually, the most important part was getting through the door. Getting my “bum on a seat”.
Once through the door
Now, there’s also Office for Students’ data that shows students who go through clearing do less well in their first year of university and institutional level observations that they have lower retention rates – and there are all kinds of opinions as to why this might be. It’s important we pay attention to this. In particular, it’s important that we give students who have come through clearing specialised advice and guidance to help them establish what they are doing at the institution, and where they want to go.
But, of course – far from a deficit model, we should be providing this for every student. My favourite scientific fact – which I trot out when arguing against significant age-gap relationships, and for a staggered age of consent – is that our prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25. This means that decisions are more impulsive and less rational before the age of 25. For many students, this means they have graduated long before they even have a fully functioning brain.
This is not to patronise the brilliant young people at universities and students’ unions that I come into contact with every day, but rather to advocate for high-quality and – importantly – adaptable advice and guidance. Students will come to institutions – through well-thought-out plans or via hasty clearing hotline enquiries – and come out to different people. The advice and guidance they are given needs to grow with them and their values (and their brains).
When I worked in a strategy team at a university, I researched the different student services and their impact on student belonging. One interview stayed with me. A student who had spoken to her career zone – and this illustrates my point perfectly, said:
I still don’t know what job I am going into, but it was really nice to have someone listen to me and understand my motivations. I know who I am now and was seen for that.
This student graduated into a job in the third sector, working for a charity close to her heart. Now compare this to a quote from a participant – on a vocational course – in some research Wonkhe and Pearson have been carrying out on belonging:
It’s just performative […] just getting it out the way. Once you’ve got this degree, then it’s all up to you […] the [staff] are just doing their part in getting you through like a conveyor belt and not actually helping you out that much.
The impact of being listened to, understood, and valued as an individual seems to outweigh concrete career plans – which, if suddenly change, leaves the student in a lurch.
Of course, I’m not saying that all applicants who go through clearing have no plans and that all students with firm offers do. I’ve read countless blogs “demystifying” and “destigmatising” clearing by students and graduates who meticulously researched institutions and planned where they would call, and in what order, come results day.
But I am saying that not all students with firm offers do have plans, and this should destigmatise the seeming impulsivity of clearing. As another interviewee told me:
The things that I thought I wanted were not what I wanted; they were just the options I knew.
This is not a ‘gotcha!’ argument aimed at those with concrete career plans, smugly pointing out that they often go astray. I am saying that the perceptions of, and conversation around, clearing should open up wider conversations on the purpose of a degree, how we measure student satisfaction and success and graduate employment. That deciding upon your degree and institution area is a small part of your success as a student (and we do know this already from Friedman’s The Class Ceiling, or Exley’s The End of Aspiration). And that institutions have a duty to tease out students’ all values and options to ensure their success.
We found love in a HE place
So, perhaps there is a middle ground between romanticised views of university education and the career conveyor belt mentality some Ministers have towards universities. Perhaps we can appreciate the genuine need, and desire, that many applicants have to find a place at a university not necessarily for the love of the subject, or at the carefully picked “right” institution, but because they believe they are navigating an economic system which demands they do so.
And whether that place is a confirmed first choice offer, or granted through clearing, once the student is enrolled, universities should allow them the space to explore all the questions, concerns, and decisions that we think they should have made before applying but hadn’t – or couldn’t (because I can assure you that many students will not have had the support to do so!).
The ideal process in the minds of clearing naysayers may seem to be ‘went to university to do what I love, and then I found a job, but we should also celebrate when the process turns out to be “I went to a university for a job, and I found what I love”.
Because clearing and the right, person-centred and adaptable careers advice within universities can, and does, facilitate this for many.