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Admissions and Clearing: time for a major Adjustment?

The annual admissions market has become too volatile and risks failing both applicants and institutions. It's time to look again at post-qualification admissions, argues Paul Greatrix.
This article is more than 7 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

As the phones on the clearing hotlines begin to cool down and the dust begins to settle on this year’s admissions round it is time to reflect on whether this really is the best that it can be.

Three years ago I wrote here on Registrarism about the 2013 admissions cycle:

It will be some time before all of the results are in but it does look at this stage as if this year’s admissions round has been a little less turbulent than last year’s. The mood across many universities seems to be one of some relief after a period of significant uncertainty. More students have been admitted than at this point last year and for most institutions (and those students) this is going to be good news

The 2012 admissions round – which coincided with the move to £9k headline fees for most institutions – heralded major changes to the system: after years of relative stability and constrained Home/EU undergraduate recruitment targets the cap was removed for students with AAB or better at A level. This caused some significant waves across the sector with everyone seeking to find their way through this uncharted territory.

Wonkhe UCAS website

That comment on reduced turbulence is likely to be the last of its kind I suspect. The last few years have seen ever more change in the recruitment landscape as competition between institutions has become ever more fierce.

Part of the reason for this change was, of course, ideological. The Government’s desire to create a ‘market’ in admissions at the top end of the qualifications ladder with universities competing for the ‘best’ students resulted, perhaps surprisingly, in some significant recruitment shortfalls in a number of Russell Group universities a few years ago. There were fewer AAB+ students than expected and it seems likely that some less nimble universities were taken by surprise by the challenge of operating in the rough and tumble of the market place. This, combined with a dip overall in student numbers, caused problems for many.

Since then things have improved for some but by no means all. Added to the challenges of ever tighter visa controls,the declining attraction of the UK as a study destination (partly because of our generally unwelcoming stance, partly as a result of other countries pitching more effectively) and now Brexit this is a recipe for ever more challenging domestic, EU and international student recruitment. Now we also have the Higher Education & Research Bill intended to bring even more marketisation and competition to the sector with new institutions, new courses and exciting new regulatory structures. Plus the Competition and Markets Authority looking over everyone’s shoulder. And the TEF, don’t forget the TEF.


From Bogof to Tinder: the Cut and Thrust of the Market

Every year there are new stories in the press about the creative approaches universities are taking to attracting students. Many of these are are fairly standard approaches including guaranteed accommodation, merit scholarships for high achievers, free iPads etc but every year new approaches are tried in order for institutions to make themselves stand out in this intensely competitive environment.

A recent story in The Times suggested that many universities were preparing to lower (sorry, “slash”) grades required for entry in order to admit underperforming students:

Some of Britain’s top universities are offering thousands of degree places through clearing — the system that matches students with unfilled places on courses — even though A-level results are not announced for 11 days.

Many universities, some of which have drawn up ambitious expansion plans, are poised to slash A-level grade offers when teenagers get their results and will accept students who may have underperformed in the exams.

Hardly revolutionary as many universities will consider ‘near misses’ and this kind of huge grade drop is really quite rare.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph had a piece on “Buy one get one free” degrees:


Elite universities are offering ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ degrees to lure in A-grade students, it has emerged, as they ramp up their efforts to attract top-flight students.

Universities hope that by offering a free master’s degree on top of a £9,000-a-year- undergraduate courses they will be able to attract the brightest students.

The new incentive followed a range of new novel ways of luring smart pupils – from free tickets to watch Premier League champions, Leicester City to free airport courses, iPads and discounted courses.

(I don’t even know what an “airport course” is.)

The Guardian had a story on the potential attraction of different kinds of courses:

To attract students and satisfy the demands of 21st-century employers, universities are putting far more emphasis on student satisfaction and work-ready skills. Vocational subjects scorned as “Mickey Mouse” degrees less than a decade ago now have some of the best graduate employment rates.

Birmingham’s applied golf management BSc has 100% of its students in jobs six months after graduation, as does the BA Hons in animation and visual effects at Sheffield Hallam University. And employers are actively seeking out graduates from Bournemouth University’s retail degree, says Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers Research, a graduate recruitment research company.

(We’ve covered some more unusual bonkers/niche courses here before.)salford_app-1441979339

Furthermore the Guardian covered the novel use by universities of social media for recruitment:

Many institutions are already very savvy about their use of the technology. Staffordshire University has taken to running Snapchat Q&As and Facebook Live Chats, offering virtual tours of its accommodation, and Sheffield Hallam University offers places through Facebook, with applicants direct messaging their queries.

Others go further, using the technology as a promotional tool. Teesside University has commissioned one of its graduates, the comedian Joe Tasker, who has 250,000 followers on Twitter, to promote it to school leavers in videos on YouTube. And in what was the first, but unlikely to be the last, example of its kind, the University of Salford has launched two profiles on the dating app Tinder, encouraging school leavers to “start a lasting relationship with us this September” and to “swipe right to find the course of your dreams”.

Such innovations will prove vital in this week’s annual scramble for places, when pupils receive their A-level results and some 60,000 of them – around 15% of the 450,000 who will go to university this year – rush to secure a course through clearing.

Full marks to these go-ahead universities for innovation (although we all abhor the use of the word ‘scramble’, I’m sure).

Managed development or into the Wild West?

I wrote earlier in 2013 of concerns about admissions and my fear that the response to these challenges would lead to an ‘admissions Wild West’ with a complete free for all in terms of recruitment and an anything goes approach to securing the best qualified students. If everyone chose to ignore the rules in the interests of seeking competitive advantage we would end up with a return to the admissions Wild West which would be not dissimilar to the US environment where it is pretty much every university and student for themselves. This would be costly, unhelpful and hugely inefficient as well as being massively unfair to and stressful for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The competition is inescapable – it’s now pretty much hard-wired into the system. But the Higher Education and Research Bill and TEF are intended to intensify it further. The challenge though is to balance this legitimate and appropriate competitive environment with a commitment to sustaining a fair system as set out in the high level principles of fair admissions of Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA). This is what the UCAS system is all about: students making informed choices and a system supporting the holistic assessment of applicants in a fair and transparent way.

With the significant growth (but still relatively modest number) of unconditional offers to students across the sector and much talk in the press as highlighted above of fee waivers, bursaries, subsidised accommodation and free iPads as incentives to potential students there is undoubtedly ever more competitive cut and thrust than before. The significant turbulence in the recent admissions rounds is of questionable benefit for applicants although the government is presumably content that the creation of this market is ultimately in their interest as providers compete to offer better products and better deals to these consumers. The risk remains though that dubious recruitment shenanigans in an expanded and more competitive market will undermine the integrity of this system.

Fit for purpose?

Wonkhe University Application FlowchartGiven all of this I would argue that we do need to ensure the core elements of the system are fit for purpose – to make certain that we have a stable admissions model which works in the interest of applicants and institutions whilst acknowledging that ministers will inevitably want to play at the margins.

We do though need to limit the scope for unhelpful interference, address the core principles for fair admissions as set out by SPA, ensure universities can’t subvert or game the system, seek to secure proper information advice and guidance for applicants and address widening participation needs. The route to achieving this would mean change for all parties but I would suggest such change will be in the long term interests of everyone.

Now some change is clearly in the air as the Times Higher reports that some modifications are planned to the current Clearing system:

Among the changes recommended by a panel of admissions experts is that applicants who are already holding offers should be allowed to release themselves into clearing if they have done better than expected, or decide that they want to go elsewhere.

Another of the working group’s recommendations is that clearing should be given a new name, as many in the sector believe that it does not reflect how the system has evolved and has negative connotations. But it is not clear what the new name could be.

(As a slight diversion I’m already looking forward to the big Twitter competition to identify a new name for Clearing – #newnameforclearing).

Last time this happened, back in 2011, UCAS undertook a review of admissions processes which recommended a number of modest changes to procedures but backed away from endorsing the most significant change, a move to post-qualification admissions or PQA:

There was a widely held view that, in principle, a post-results system would be desirable. Aspects of the proposal for application post-results were attractive to some, but it is clear there are too many systemic problems with the post-results proposals to support implementation.

Respondents felt that applying with results would not necessarily support applicants aspiring to the most competitive courses and concerns were raised about potential negative impacts on widening participation and less well-supported applicants. Loss of teaching time, the impact on standards of achievement, the potential for a more mechanistic approach to the assessment of applicants and the lack of time and resources to provide IAG at critical points were also major concerns.

In the review many detailed objections were raised to PQA but each of these can be overcome in practice if the will is there.

However, in order for our admissions system to be genuinely fit for purpose and capable of surviving in this rapidly evolving competitive environment we do need to look seriously at post qualification admissions (PQA). Moving away from admissions based on predicted grades to a system of admission on the basis of grades achieved, ie PQA, has been proposed previously and historically there have been many objections – especially around exam board marking arrangements and universities’ teaching timetables. Whilst solutions to these have become feasible they have been replaced by new concerns particularly around fairness to applicants, information, advice and guidance provision during school vacation periods and ensuring wider participation.

If we were designing a system from scratch we really would not start with the idea that students should apply to university with predicted rather than actual grades. The current set up, whilst historically understandable, remains logically indefensible. Academic qualifications are the primary indicator of capability to pursue a course of study. It is logical, fair and sensible to put them at the centre of the admissions process and this should be the basis for our national application system, run by UCAS. But this needs to happen after the grades have been awarded.

All of the objections can be addressed with willingness on the part of the HE sector and the schools and exam boards to move just a little. Moreover, if the last few years have demonstrated anything it is the general lack of properly resource careers advice, information and guidance in many schools which mean that many young people lack the support to navigate this ever more complex landscape. Organisations such as Inspiring Futures (where I am a board member) are working hard to address this gap but it remains a huge issue.

It really is time for change

So let’s have a fresh look at PQA, focus on advice and guidance in schools, reinforce the SPA core principles for fair admissions and ensure that we are all well-prepared to cope in what will continue to be a turbulent environment. We don’t want a Wild West in admissions and, whilst it is inevitable that ministers will introduce more changes in future, if we establish clearly now how admissions will operate in future this will bring lasting benefits and reduced the potential impact of such modifications. Stability in the admissions system will be helpful to HEIs but will also work in the interests of applicants, ensure proper attention is paid to widening participation and be fairer.

The proposed changes to Clearing are a start but we really do need to look at going a whole lot further, to PQA. Then we can start dealing with all of the other challenges which come after the start of term.

5 responses to “Admissions and Clearing: time for a major Adjustment?

    1. The new A Level structure may force it. Predicted grades are notoriously over-optimistic as it is: now that there’s no internal checkpoint in the two years of A Level study when student performance is assessed, they’re little more than guesswork at best and a helping hand for ‘nice’ students at worst.

      Any university that cares about continuation rates is going to have to insist on some benchmark of performance prior to admission. It’s either PQA or entry tests and entry tests are time-consuming and expensive to run.

  1. Good article. Rather than fight those opposed to PQA, we could just watch the current inexorable move towards it until the opponents realise they are losing students to those universities who are ahead of the game. Some of the opposition is snobbery and a desire to go back to when university was the preserve of a few.

  2. I reckon I could have found place for my dog & granny this time . And she’s been dead 20 years.

    “Many universities, some of which have drawn up ambitious expansion plans, are poised to slash A-level grade offers when teenagers get their results and will accept students who may have underperformed in the exams.” – Sunday Times.

    In response to Nigel Wright, “….when university was the preserve of a few”, I’d say it is the preserve of those with academic talent.

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