The expansion of clearing is a nightmarish vision of PQA

Headlines using words like “scramble” and “fight”. Terrible advice like “buy everything on the reading list”. Paper supplements full of advice on what to “take” (several pinches of salt?). Dodgy ads making questionable proclamations on the university’s prowess in student satisfaction or graduate employment.

Here we are again in the intense bit of the clearing season, but my social feeds have been filling up for a few weeks now. What used to be a process that opened on A level results day has moved earlier and earlier. And after a little bit of a play around on the UCAS statistical reporting webpage we can see why:

2018

Total number of applicants placed: 495,510

Main scheme placed (Clearing): 45,960

Direct to Clearing placed: 14,410

2013

Total number of applicants placed: 471,880

Main scheme placed (Clearing): 38,730

Direct to Clearing placed: 11,770

The percentage of students entering through some form of Clearing has gone from 10.7 per cent in 2013 to 12.2 per cent in 2018. While this only looks like a steady rise it represents an extra 9870 students taking this route since 2013, and if we take that at a marketised value of a three-year course using the maximum fee that’s an extra income of £326,595,860 compared to five years previously. Hardly small change!

Higher and higher

And that figure is set to rise again. Previously, A level students had to phone the university and ask to be released from their firm or insurance offer once they received their results. This year students can decline their “firm” offer online all on their own. 2,500 students have already used the self-release system to discard their place – including 300 that have dumped unconditional offers. The Student Room found that two fifths of students were considering releasing themselves from their firm offer, and one in ten said they definitely would.

We are all aware of the increasing focus on clearing and a quick look at institutions’ social media shows how heavy the advertising is. Last year I got increasingly annoyed at some of the recruitment schemes flaunted on social – from the standard PR shot of a vice-chancellor on the clearing hotline to “clearing applicants can win a PFL season ticket” or having “a premier league footballer on the phones” while flaunting a partnership with that club. All accompanied by social opportunities (that not everyone can access), accommodation (that may well be more expensive than the high street), course facilities (that are under increasing strain), and boasts about the affordability of the area (drawing on “research” like this, which somehow found that a kebab for University of Nottingham students is £1 more expensive than those at Nottingham Trent).

Expectation vs. reality

Is the student experience being mis-sold? While no-one is expecting heartbreaking stories of scraping by on low incomes or precariously balancing part-time work, study and extra-curricular activities, there does need to be a greater focus on the diverse reality of student life.

Students who enter through clearing have a much shorter timeframe to decide on their future, facing the pressure of “knowing” that there are a limited number of places. Should the positive stories, shiny buildings and polished PR be integrated with showing attainment, continuation and graduate outcome rates for those who come through clearing? Something that never gets pushed is on how many students go on to complete degrees through clearing or their overall attainment. Trying to find this data without being on the inside of the institution is nigh on impossible.

Worse still, we know that the idea that a fixed number of places that are “limited” is less true than it used to be – in many cases its “as many as we can get”, with the implications on staff workload and timetabling sorted out in early September. Implying to applicants to that they have to act fast to secure a scarce place when it is nothing of the sort is pressure selling in my book. If we want smart decision making, we really ought to think about how we take the pressure off, not calculate how to pile it on.

More generally, we know from research that many students don’t know what to expect from university or that at best their expectations are faulty. If advertising creates unattainable expectations of academic and social student life, the realities that don’t meet those expectations could be devastating for mental health, completion and student satisfaction.

There’s a real tension here too for students’ unions. Most will be encouraged to take part in the hard sell, with sabbatical officers staffing the hotlines and putting videos of themselves on TikTok. But if all of this could be harmful to students, shouldn’t they be intervening to calm it all down? And if the making of an offer to an applicant is one involving academic judgment, how confident are we that the academic governance is in the driving seat (or could at least apply the brakes) when those advertised entry standards are relaxed?

Who regulates the advertising?

The Advertising Standards Authority has been interested in this area. In the past couple of years there have been warnings, and universities have been made to remove claims suggesting they are in the top X per cent or best in X location without grounding evidence. This is fine, but it doesn’t get at the spin around high quality teaching, student culture, and affordability that has become more prevalent.

We have also seen an increasing shift toward promoting league tables which show universities located in the best student cities or most affordable where core data includes the price of a kebab and a pint – not an appropriate reflection of student life and often put together by companies wanting clicks to sell something to students. When these are used by universities in advertising, surely this is where the Advertising Standards Authority or the Office for Students needs to step in.

If the same quality sources were used by the new intake of students for an assessed piece of work it wouldn’t be considered be a first class assignment. Yet there’s nothing from the Advertising Standards Authority to regulate universities using this sort of “research”, or intervening when the focus is on how wonderful X city is to live in and how great it is to study here because pre-selected students told us so. Surely the Office for Students is in a better place to regulate whether “Quality, reliable standards and positive outcomes for all students” are met as per the regulatory framework – which should probably encompass advertising as that first point of contact.

The clearing period does offer the opportunity for those who have have made the grades, made decisions later or might not have traditional circumstances – but this must come with advertising that sets clear expectations that are deliverable. Clearing is the closest thing we have to a post qualifications admission system. Without better regulation on both expansion and advertising, the fans of post qualification admissions should be careful what they wish for.

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