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Clearing, no longer the bargain basement offering

Despite its transformation in recent years, all the same negative connotations of Clearing remain. It's time for a rebrand, says Zahir Irani

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | July 18, 2016 | Students

Clearing has become a different creature from the unsightly scramble of yesteryear. It’s changed in line with the lifting of the student number cap, the increased diversity of applicants and their different needs from the HE application system.

There’s a far greater number of courses being offered by institutions, not just the odds and ends offered as a way of backfilling the holes or a matter of just being opportunistic; there are more new, inter-disciplinary courses being offered or even launched during Clearing to spot check the market.

At the same time, students themselves have become more canny about how they can use the system to their advantage. These days it’s more likely for HE to be chasing 'customers' than the students trying to grab sought-after places in all but the most selective courses. HE has had to find ways to take advantage of the more open market, especially when it comes to courses that are cheaper in terms of delivery costs and unit of resource.

So the Clearing period is an essential part of the HE recruitment cycle in the new world of HE, fast becoming part of the mainstream and not the alternative. When it comes to meeting the needs of the full range of different learners, it has to be. Because it’s the way we can both help accommodate and manage the unpredictability and the need for flexibility. We’re able to allow for late decision-making, changes in plans, for students to ‘trade up’ for better options.

As the sector starts to take on more non-traditional students, more BTec applicants and mature students, Clearing becomes more and more of a process to develop, build on and promote as prime evidence of the evolution of the new HE landscape

Students are more likely to find the best option for them - HE gets more satisfied learners, confident they’ve had a choice and not been channelled into one route with no going back. As the sector starts to take on more non-traditional students, more BTec applicants and mature students, Clearing becomes more and more of a process to develop, build on and promote as prime evidence of the evolution of the new HE landscape - how we’re backing student choice and participation, opening up to learner of all kinds, rather than creating a tiered system or one moulded around a once dominant A'level mode of entry for all. 

But in terms of the Clearing ‘brand’, nothing has yet changed. It still has the same name, the same basic systems and processes behind it, and along with it, all the same negative connotations of Clearing as the bargain basement offering from HE. It continues to be tainted by the perception of being the route for the lesser candidates who haven’t managed to get it right first time. If it was ever true, it certainly isn’t now and it’s time for a fundamental re-branding of Clearing and a sector-wide effort to transform its reputation. A new name is needed - something that actually reflects the realities of opportunity and flexibility. 

Then there’s the issue of Clearing as an experience. It can be a negative one in the context of that sense of the being part of the secondary application process, ringing round the hotlines as one of the outsiders, being offered courses on a ‘first-come, first-served’ basis and being even cascaded across to other programmes.

The experience also has the potential to taint student’s attitudes to their course and their institution, as just a last minute option. It can affect a student’s levels of commitment, just at the time when they’re going to need to make a step-change in their approach to studying, adding to the risk of their dropping out. It can affect performance generally, a lack of engagement with university life, and potentially lead to poor feedback in the National Student Survey. 

HE needs to be championing a new-look Clearing as a flagship for its modernised offering. Why can’t the summer period be a showcase of the best of HE, in terms of the quality of support and advice being provided, when students feel the excitement of making important choices about their future, that they’re getting what’s best for them?

Professor Zahir Irani, Chair in Sustainable Business Operations, Brunel University London – @Zahirirani1

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