Julie Kelly: clearing a way for a better admissions process

Julie Kelly, head of The Student Centre at University of Hertfordshire, says the sector should introduce a post-qualification admissions system

Clearing is upon us again and if the current trend continues, more than 66,000 students will secure their place at university through the post-qualifications application route this August.

Universities will handle calls for 30,000 courses with spaces on offer, ensuring they can start alongside their peers in September and October. If universities can manage this process, perhaps we could and should manage the entire recruitment process post-qualifications, as is the case in nearly every other country.

There is a growing rift between expected grades and students’ actual results, meaning our system of using predicted grades to offer places in advance is causing serious issues later in the admissions cycle, with more students entering clearing when they’ve missed their predicted results.

According to Ucas, 85% of all applicants missed their predicted grades in 2018. The over-inflation of predicted grades is becoming increasingly pronounced, with a quarter of students missing their predictions by more than 3 grades in 2018, up from 15% of applicants in 2013.

There has also been much media attention over the past six months on the year-on-year rise in the number of unconditional offers being made to university applicants. In 2018 7.8% of all offers made to 18-year-old applicants were unconditional. A report into unconditional offer making by Ucas found that those holding a confirmed place on an undergraduate course were marginally more likely to miss their predicted grades than those holding a conditional offer.

Should clearing be abandoned?

Clearing was set up to allow those students who fail to achieve the necessary grades for their preferred university to find a place elsewhere. Some argue that the stigma this imposed on those who go through clearing is not what it once was, but I’m not sure. While some students use the system to ‘trade up’ when they exceed their predicted grades, the vast majority who are placed through clearing have achieved lower-than-expected grades and have been rejected by their two favourite universities.

Clearing puts young people under huge pressure to re-order their plans for their future in the space of a day. Many students find this situation completely overwhelming; when my daughter found herself in clearing, she struggled to find the confidence to pick up the phone to call the clearing hotlines, and she certainly wasn’t alone in this feeling. However, both this pressure and the clearing ‘stigma’ would be erased if everyone applied once they had their results.

An overhaul of the predicted grades system could reduce the pressure on applicants to achieve them, while maintaining the incentive to do as well as possible. This would surely be a good thing at a time of increasing mental health problems among young people.

Post-qualification shake-up

Some people in the sector have argued that moving to a post-qualification admissions system would entail a frantic late-summer round of activity for Ucas and university admissions staff. But, by the same token, it would cut out a whole tranche of the administrative cycle, in which offers are made and then withdrawn, students have to be released from their courses if their grades improve, or if they have simply changed their mind.

It would also save a significant amount of universities’ resources in terms of both time and money on marketing and recruitment activities to entice clearing applicants, as well as the creation of a sizeable call centre for what is, in essence, one day.

Paul Cottrell, acting leader of the UCU lecturers’ union, commented last month that “there is growing support for a shift to a post-qualification admissions system”. Indeed, Universities UK has recently launched a ‘Fair Admissions Review’ of admissions practices in UK universities and the Office for Students is to look at ways of improving current admissions practices, which will no doubt be accelerated by Westminster’s unfavourable view of the growth in unconditional offers.

While the UK admissions process has been reviewed many times before over the past decade, now seems to be an obvious time for universities to get behind a review of current practices.  I know where I’d rather be spending universities’ resources, and it’s certainly not by asking students to apply twice and risking heartbreak in the process.

Julie Kelly is head of The Student Centre at the University of Hertfordshire 

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