Clearing roundtable: what’s changed and what does the future hold?

The explosion in communications technology, and the lifting of the student numbers cap, have brought about great changes to university clearing. But how effective is today’s clearing system – for both universities and students? Steve Wright asks a panel of experts

How has clearing changed – since it began, and in particular since the lifting of the student numbers cap in 2015?

Gavin Newman: One of the biggest changes to the clearing process is perception of it. It is no longer seen as the consolation prize for panic-stricken students desperate for a place anywhere that will take them.

Linked to this is the increase in prestigious universities using the service. Universities are also adopting a different approach towards clearing: many now put student ambassadors at the heart of the process, giving prospective students genuine insight and reassurance from someone who has been in their shoes already.

Lastly, to cope with the sheer volume of clearing communications, tech-savvy universities are now embracing online communications tools to allow online and live chat and to remove some of the pressures and panic of getting through to someone on the busiest day of the year.

Jamie Bradford: The biggest change is the sheer length of time taken up by clearing these days. Until the last few years, clearing happened over that critical August period, for two or three weeks from A-level results day. It now starts earlier and earlier. Ucas launched on 5 July, but we were open for clearing in mid June.

These changes are driven by the increasing recruitment mentality to the market. When the student cap was in place, universities had a limited quota of students they could recruit. Essentially, it was managing numbers. It was all too easy to over-recruit, and lots of universities got fined for doing just that.

Sam Winterbottom: From my perspective, it’s more about how students’ requirements have remained the same. When pupils get their results, they want to call in. They want to speak to a person, rather than use an app or watch a webpage load, so we’re actually delivering more calls to our university customers now than we did in 2015. The change is more about the push to digital technologies to enable that level of calls.

Rebecca Hollington: Clearing has changed hugely over the years. The lifting of the student cap, and the increase in universities using clearing to supplement existing student numbers, has changed how universities interact with students. It has also given students a consumer-type choice of where to study. Students are no longer seeing clearing as a last-chance saloon, but more of an extension to the existing Ucas application cycle.

This is reflected in the fact that more students are applying later on during the main Ucas cycle (after the January 15 deadline). In addition to this, more students are gaining a place at university through clearing, the overall percentage proportion of students entering through clearing is growing year-on-year and, with rejections decreasing, more students are being accepted to their firm choice university.

There has also been a marked increase in the numbers of students applying through clearing as direct applicants, meaning that their very first application to university is straight through clearing. The process is far more student-driven than ever before, and universities are reacting with more innovative and dynamic marketing campaigns, offers and ways of communicating with students. More recently, we’ve seen clearing offers made through social media, WhatsApp etc. Universities are adapting to student needs, rather than the other way around.

Vicky Hayhurst: Clearing has changed hugely since the lifting of the student numbers cap. There are more students applying to universities direct through clearing than previously and many prospective students who have followed the traditional Ucas cycle know that they can more easily ‘trade up’ if they gain better grades than they were expecting.

Due to the change in mindset of many prospective students – who know that they can apply late, or change their mind once they have their results, and are more likely than previous years to get a place – some universities are now changing their view on clearing, and treating it as just another entry point during the year. Competition between universities is fierce with more universities agreeing their clearing media spend and strategy much earlier in the cycle.

This increased focus and competition means that marketing and communications strategies have become much more innovative and dynamic, and sometimes even a little desperate. Targeted content such as the use of personalised videos and social media messaging has increased, as have attempts to create content that is more likely to be shared or to ‘go viral’ in order to raise university profile. And some universities have been using live chat, chatbots and voice recognition to take prospective students through parts of the application process more quickly than that traditional phone call.

Penny Sweasey: Discussing this with Julie Kelly [head of the student centre at the University of Hertfordshire], Phil Bloor [head of Admissions, Sheffield Hallam University] and Ian Denning [CRM and events manager, Coventry University], we agree that clearing has changed significantly in the last four years.

Its negative perception has decreased, and it has become an increasingly mainstream and acceptable part of the application cycle. 

The number of institutions involved in clearing, and the number of applicants placed, has increased.

Applicants (and their teachers) are more knowledgeable about the clearing process, and Phil notes that students are becoming more savvy about the opportunities that clearing offers. 

For applicants who already hold a place from the main cycle, it is now often used as an opportunity to change their course after receiving their results.

However, we are also seeing an increase in the number of applicants using clearing to make their first applications. Information provided to students (and parents/teachers) is far more comprehensive, and published much earlier than it was in 2015, and there is an earlier phase of clearing when students who have studied for BTec qualifications can confirm or adjust their offers in July, ahead of the A-level rush.

Institutional approaches to clearing are becoming more polished and rapidly evolving, in line with market trends and communications options. Universities have grown more sophisticated in their marketing approaches, advertising vacancies through social media; the processing of results and offers is faster, agile and targeted; and students hear from potential recruiting universities sometimes even before they find out their results. Students are using social media to find out what existing applicants are being offered, what accommodation to aim for, and what courses are available from others, all in real time.

How can universities and colleges make clearing work as effectively as possible for them?

GN: Giving greater responsibility to their student ambassadors is definitely one route. Research shows that an increasing number of students are accepting places via clearing – proving that, when used correctly, it is a great way for universities to offer vacant places to prospective students who have made an informed decision, rather than panic buying and regretting it a few weeks or months into their course.

JB: Today, the whole university gets involved in clearing. It’s not just run by admissions: it’s a collaborative effort from admissions, marketing, senior faculty, IT, estates. Since the cap has gone, universities have essentially been able to work to their market potential – but then it’s up to each university to decide what that looks like for them.

Hence the need for conversations about grade boundaries: do you go for higher-quality grades and potentially reduce your pool of students, or do you decide you want more students, but with marginally lower-quality grades? What kind of university do you want to be for your students?

RH: Most importantly, the university must understand its stance towards clearing. What type of students are coming to you through clearing, and how can you best engage them? Is there an area of growth which would mean looking at new typesets of students? 

Is there an area of anticipated decline that would require proactive action to address this early in your clearing campaigns? There is so much noise around clearing that being able to target ‘priority’ courses, identifying the target students for these courses, and deploying appropriate channels and marketing would give a university a clear advantage in a challenging sector.

It’s also important that universities consider what happens after clearing. As much as recruitment and admissions teams often set their objectives at numbers of students, it is vital to understand the quality of students that we’re bringing into the universities. Do these students enrol? Do they progress? Do they achieve? This will help to set entry criteria early on and set more realistic objectives.

VH: Objectives differ widely from one university/college to the next. Filling as many courses as possible is one approach, but if the students filling the courses are not of the right calibre this can have consequences, whether they be poor student retention (as students will drop out if they can’t cope with the level of study or they’ve picked the wrong course), loss of funding (when the students drop out without completing their course) or drops in student satisfaction (from struggling students).

PS: From an institutional perspective, clearing is largely an opportunity to recruit additional students to meet recruitment targets but, at a more personal level, clearing is about pairing students with vacancies on the right courses, where places have not been filled through the main cycle. It is no longer about filling unpopular courses with students who have done badly in A-levels or BTecs: universities view clearing as a pre- and post-results recruitment phase, with open days and pre-clearing marketing and targeted communications to adjust numbers, not plug gaps. Increasingly, universities are publishing likely availability in July and many students will be surprised at what is on offer.

There will always be a tension between absolute numbers recruited in any cycle and the spread of recruitment across courses and the teaching capacity, so universities need to think holistically and recognise the impact of matching students with courses effectively.

Institutional approaches to clearing are becoming more polished and rapidly evolving, in line with market trends – Penny Sweasey, University Alliance

What staff, technology and processes will ensure a smooth clearing experience, both for the university itself and for the hundreds of anxious students calling in?

GN: To cope with the sheer volume of on-the-day clearing communications, tech-savvy universities are embracing online communications tools to allow online and live chat with student ambassadors and faculty members, as well as sample lectures, virtual campus tours, and more.

JB: Nearly every university has strategies for clearing, and messages they want to get out there. Be aware, when training staff for this time, that you’ll be dealing with anxious students, so your staff need the right communication and interpersonal skills.

SW: From a telephony standpoint, the most important thing is answering the calls that come in as quickly as possible, without losing any. An appropriate number of staff to accept calls is essential, as is the ability to check relevant databases consecutively and to ensure efficient management of inbound calls as they come in. 

RH: Clearing is a year condensed into (increasingly) a couple of intensive and business-critical days. Those staff that would normally be involved in supporting and nurturing students during the main cycle need to be engaged and involved in a university’s shortened clearing window.

Most universities engage a large call-centre-style operation to handle the sharp increase in enquiries. 

I would strongly recommend streamlining this as much as possible to provide continuity of service to prospective students, as well as allowing efficient management and risk mitigation. If clearing calls are directed all over the university, with some areas making offers, others calling students back and others still sending emails, this becomes very confusing – both for students and for core services such as IT. It can be difficult to fit in with everyone’s existing processes, especially if your university as quite a devolved structure. Focus on what is best for the students, rather than the university.

VH: Universities and colleges need to ensure that they have staff available to respond to student queries – not just over the phone but online, too. We know that the virtual tours and virtual open days that we produce gain the most amount of traffic during clearing, when prospective students are trying to make a quick decision and often don’t have time to visit a university in person. So making sure that a two-way conversation can happen via live chat or messenger, as well as via a telephone call, means more enquiries handled and more offers made. Institutions must ensure that, however they are handling enquiries, accurate information about which courses still have places, and the entry requirements for those places, is at hand for both staff and students (and their parents) to access.

PS: Using a wide array of social media and technology platforms enables universities to get course details out to students much more effectively, to direct students towards courses they may not have considered, and to view course details whilst speaking to the clearing team.

Students will be happier making a choice if they can see the halls of residence in a 360-degree video, or if they can be sent a link to the course outline and structure in a tweet, whilst having a conversation with the clearing team.

Most universities now provide additional support to students through dedicated clearing websites (see, for example, www.herts.ac.uk/clearing), long before the August results day, which allows students to apply for courses without the need to make a phone call at a point of high stress. 

Just as importantly, universities should make every effort to keep in touch with students they have recruited through clearing, and to ensure that the latter are able to start university with a sense of ‘belonging’ and confidence. Social media, old-fashioned letters, pre-course subject fora, accommodation group chats, and well-designed induction weeks can all help to ensure that clearing students do not feel disadvantaged and make a smooth transition into their university lives.

How should prospective students get the best results from clearing? How flexible should they be with their ambitions?

JB: Planning is the best thing. Rather than getting to August and thinking ‘I’ve not got the grades, what do I do?’, do your research well in advance. Think: what happens if I don’t get the grades I want – or I do better than I thought?

Ideally, I’d recommend students have a list of courses and universities they are interested in. Then, on results day, they can just hit those courses and universities. 

I’d also recommend getting in touch with universities in June, if you are even considering clearing as something you might be using. Planning, researching, identifying potential options leaves you in a better position.

RH: Take your time and think through your options. There is always a sense of urgency around clearing, but students shouldn’t let this impact on their decision. They have time. 

Know what your fixed needs are: for example, do you want to stay in a certain region or city, or are you more interested in a particular course or discipline? 

PS: Julie’s advice to students is to prepare in advance of results day, and to have a plan B. They should at least consider other institutions and courses, make a shortlist with contact details, and, perhaps, go back to the long-list options identified before the Ucas shortlist of five universities. 

Many universities have a clearing sign-up or alert service that enables students to get ahead of the rush on results day. We recommend that students enlist the support of family, friends and sixth-form tutors to search online for more information as choices and offers are being made, and also that they don’t panic: clearing offers do not demand that decisions have to be made on day one.

Some universities have a clearing accommodation guarantee, so this may be an important factor. There are plenty of YouTube videos in which students recount their experience of clearing: these will reassure applicants about the process.

Phil emphasises the need for students to consider what they would do if their grades are much better than they expected. Was there a course that they would have preferred, but for which they did not apply as they were not predicted to achieve the required grades? They could check if this course still has vacancies in clearing and use adjustment to apply.

Institutions must ensure that accurate information about which courses still have places, and the entry requirements for those places, is at hand – Vicky Hayhurst, Revolution Viewing

How effective is today’s clearing process? Could it be improved?

GN: Judging by the increased numbers of students taking university places via clearing, you’d have to say that the process is effective – but there’s always room for improvement. I think we will continue to see a rise in the use of online communications technologies such as Uni-Connect, which is a flexible suite of communication tools, as well as increased use of student ambassadors to make the process even more effective and engaging.

JB: The name itself doesn’t help with negative connotations. I think people are using clearing now as another application process – some people don’t apply at all, and just go through clearing to find a university.

It’s no longer a case of ‘you have not been successful, therefore you need to be in clearing’. Lots of universities have really good examples of students who have come through clearing and had a really good experience. This all helps to change the perception. 

SW: Today’s clearing process can always be improved on as technology progresses. We’ve seen a huge shift in technology to better support the clearing process in the last five years. Advancements in technology have already massively reduced call wait times, and have ensured that fewer calls are missed. Exploring new solutions is key here. 

RH: I think changing the terminology would probably be the first thing I would do. Clearing is an out-of-date concept and term. Some countries don’t have such fixed application cycles – the period that we call clearing, they would essentially just file under ‘later applications’. 

A change in terminology would also help the perception around clearing. The reality is that many students who do go through clearing go on to be very happy at their chosen university, and it has no impact on their future in terms of career progression.

VH: The clearing process itself seems to run quite smoothly for the majority of universities (and is over relatively quickly, considering how many students are placed during the first two days). However, the whole process (that of previously made offers needing to be confirmed once A-levels results are revealed) does create a lot of panic and uncertainty for institutions and for applicants.

This level of panic and uncertainty doesn’t feel effective. Other countries have processes whereby offers are only made once A-level-comparable qualifications have been gained – making for far less uncertainty. 

In order for the UK to move to such a process, huge and systemic changes would be required and I’m unsure that we will see that in the next decade, by which time clearing may be completely different again.

PS: Universities do their best to support students through a very frantic day, but actually clearing is now a longer phase and a core part of the overall admissions cycle. 

In the past Ucas has described clearing as a ‘sub-optimal process’ that places undue pressure on both universities and students. Julie wrote an article for Times Higher Education outlining why the current HE Admissions system is outdated and needs review [see further reading].

The consensus amongst Alliance universities is that the clearing process is now very effective, but should be kept under review to ensure that those students most in need of application advice and support are not disadvantaged – either before they apply, or if they join a course through clearing.

Phil Bloor believes the biggest step change would be an online process that enabled applicants who are already in Ucas to refer themselves directly to their chosen universities and colleges, and to receive a response online. Across the sector, and in government, there is scrutiny around admissions: there are arguments for and against a post-results admissions system. Whatever the process, universities recognise how quickly the clearing process has changed, and know that it will continue to be scrutinised, so the pressures on them to get it right are immense.


The panel

Gavin Newman: Events director, iVent virtual event providers
Jamie Bradford: Head of schools and colleges, Leicester De Montfort University
Sam Winterbottom: Head of public sector, Gamma
Rebecca Hollington: Head of UK recruitment, directorate of recruitment and partnerships, University of Wolverhampton
Vicky Hayhurst: Commercial director, Revolution Viewing
Penny Sweasey: Teaching excellence alliance lead, University Alliance


Further reading

Sample YouTube video of students’ experience of clearing: https://www.shu.ac.uk/study-here/clearing/stephane

Julie Kelly calls for changes to the admissions system: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/lets-spare-students-outdated-admissions-rigamarole

Should universities give offers after results day?: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/jan/14/universities-should-give-offers-after-results-day-says-study 

Office for Students calls for greater use of ‘contextual’ offers: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/radical-changes-needed-to-ensure-university-admissions-identify-potential-not-just-exam-results/

The University Alliance TEA team are happy to visit sixth form colleges to talk about preparation for clearing: email tea@unialliance.ac.uk