What we have learned from Clearing 2023

Are we really all doomed?

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

That’s the main chunk of clearing done with (though we get the final tally at the end of September), and – with the usual caveat that not everyone applies via UCAS – we have a chance to take a look at the state of the sector’s recruitment for 2023.

The headlines are, as has been covered previously, an unwinding of the pandemic effect which saw recruitment soar to unprecedented level. In terms of overall volume this year is dead on where you would expect the demographic curve to put it. Fascinatingly, the proportion of applicants holding a place is almost dead on last year – halting a multi-year trend that has seen proportionally less people find a place via UCAS. In numeric terms this represents a drop over last year but an improvement over 2019.

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You’ll also spot a record low proportion landing their “firm” (preferred place) – driven by 18 year olds with worse than expected A level results as we complete (in England) the journey back to Gove’s golden grade ratio.


Likewise, the proportion of English 18 year olds placed at a higher Tariff provider is up slightly on last year – an unexpected result given widespread newspaper predictions that the doors of our more selective providers were closing to home applicants.

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Widening access

It’s not fashionable, but I like the POLAR measure as a way of thinking about admissions – as it is designed to highlight applicants from areas where (for one reason or another) people tend not to get into higher education. Again we see an unwinding of the pandemic effect, but visually the lack of movement in terms of each quintile is the most striking. We have – over 10 years – seen all boats rise: sheer expansion, rather than particular effort expended on those with less opportunity appears to have driven growth in numbers and entry rates over a decade.

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This years notable trend has been an increase in the proportion of 18 year old applicants accepted onto courses in computing and law, while mature (35+) learners have moved into business in a big way.

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It’s very easy to wave apocalyptic language about, and it makes for endlessly clickable headlines. And there is a large interest in painting a picture of universities in decline – with market entrants looking to break into post-compulsory education by providing a different kind product backed by a great deal of money. The fact remains that young people choose traditional university study – they did so in record numbers during the pandemic, and even though these could not be sustained for ever, numbers still closely track demographics.

Some of the more excitable corners of the right wing press are trying to push the “go woke, go broke” meme at universities – this fails to make sense on both financial (universities are struggling during a cost of living crisis and a fall in the value of government support) and cultural (young people are, in the main, substantially more “woke” than universities) grounds.

As in every year, it is difficult to make sense of new recruitment patterns without the provider level data that will arrive in January.

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