Setting realistic student expectations in clearing

Last year, over 60,000 people were accepted to a UK university through clearing, a number that has been growing year-on-year.

Staff members from across a large variety of teams will be putting in long hours to ensure that phone lines are covered, CRM systems are effectively responding to queries, social media channels are buzzing and marketing campaigns are pulling in the numbers required.

Yet all of this hard work will only lead to further problems if students are sold unrealistic expectations.

The right choice for the student

Speaking recently on the Wonkhe podcast, Mary Stuart, vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, spoke about the risks that clearing presents if we don’t keep asking ourselves: “is this the right choice for the individual student?”

A student’s satisfaction with their university experience will be based on whether their expectations are met. If universities don’t understand what their students expect of them, they will be unable to offer the support needed to ensure that student is successful. Likewise, if students don’t understand what is expected of them, they will be unprepared to engage in their learning from day one.

In the annual Student Academic Experience survey, students have been noting a steady decline in their experience being “better than expected” – from a “high” of 32% in 2013 to 22% in the 2019 results.

If student marketing is done right, it is not just about getting a student to enrol, but to be a good fit and understand the expectations of the institution – something reiterated within the rhetoric of successive governments. However, research with students indicates that the topics of most importance to them – the academic and practical aspects of the course – are rarely the focus of recruitment materials.

There is a risk that institutions increasing their marketing activity adds to the noise, making it harder for students to make sense of what’s really on offer. There is an easy jump from marketing being used to meet student expectations to marketing leading them; with higher student expectations being propelled by increased marketing activity.

There is also the concern that heavy student advertising and marketing of the “private benefits” of higher education to prospective students leads to reduced student commitment to the educational process. However, picking bones with the marketisation of higher education will have to wait for another day.

Setting expectations

It might sound all doom and gloom, but there is a huge amount of great practice already taking place across the sector in this area.

Appropriate expectation setting starts from before we’re even talking to the student on the phone / Facebook messenger / futuristic chat-bot about their offer. Having clear information on our institutional websites, so that students can see real details about courses and how they will run, is crucial.

When talking with students about their offer, we should ask them about their plans. Are they planning to self-finance? – what support might they need if that is the case. Where are they planning on living? If they’re hoping to move away from home, then we should make sure that we’re upfront about costs of living in halls of residence (to avoid protests later down the line). If students are hoping to move into the private rented sector, how can we help connect those students with others and good, reputable landlords in the local area? If students are planning to stay at home, how can we support their commute to university?

Once students have been given their offer, inviting them onto campus before term starts, so that they can see the facilities and what the learning environment will be like, is important. This can be a celebration event, so that new students can meet others and start building social networks. We can also invite students to a pre-arrival event with workshops to help them learn more about the step-up to higher education study. Asking students about their hopes and fears – and where possible involving our current students so that they can talk about how they overcame similar challenges – is vital.

Does your institution run a pre-arrival or welcome survey? This gives us an opportunity to ask some questions to get students thinking about what their time at university might be like. We may then need to organise some communications to new students to show them the findings of the surveys and start to correct some of the expectations that might not be accurate – e.g. how much of the course will be independent study. I’d recommend these two Wonkhe blogs from Michelle Morgan and Linda Speight if you’re interested in introducing one of these.

Start a dialogue

Beyond setting expectations with students, there’s also a great amount that can be done with staff to set expectations about our new cohort of students.

Once we’ve set up our pre-arrival / welcome survey, we can share the results by department with academic colleagues to give them an understanding of what level students are at and what they are expecting. Ideally, if the survey was positioned this way to the students, we could share the individual results with the students’ new personal tutors, so that they can have an open dialogue with the student about where they are and what support they need.

We should look at the demographics of students that we’re accepting through clearing. Some institutions will choose to be more selective and maintain entry grade requirements, others will lower grade requirements to give more students a place. There is no right or wrong approach, but we need to make sure the rest of our institutions understand the decision and are resourced appropriately.

The number of students with BTECs applying and getting accepted to UK universities has shot up over the last 8 years – which is a real success for widening access. However once those students are admitted, they are less likely to get top grades and more likely to drop out. So, if we’re accepting an increasing number of students with a BTEC background, then we should consider introducing more hands-on, practice-based learning into modules. Also ensure that these students are offered support in developing their academic writing skills.

Expect the unexpected

Ultimately, one thing that we can all do is emphasise to students that university is supposed to challenge them. If they are expecting it to all be easy and have everything figured out, then question why they want to study with us in the first place.

If students understand that this challenge is expected and normal, they will also be more likely to reach out for support without feeling guilty.

Getting students to that place where they expect to be challenged, but know support is available, is the best way to help them prepare for the journey ahead.

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