Clearing – clear sighted?

How much is Ucas’ new Clearing Plus shaking up the admissions landscape? And how can universities ensure recruitment remains vigorous post-Covid? Steve Wright quizzes the experts

This summer’s university admissions cycle has been shaken up by the introduction of Ucas’ new initiative, Clearing Plus. Applicants who find themselves in Clearing can now browse courses to which they’ve been matched, based on both their own application and the profile of students sought by universities. Applicants who find a course for which they want to be considered can click an ‘I’m interested’ button to have their details passed to the relevant university: the latter may then, if places remain, contact the applicant to discuss things further and, potentially, make an offer.

In July, Ucas chief Clare Marchant told the Fifth Festival of Higher Education that Clearing Plus had, within the first 48 hours of Clearing, put half of providers in touch with nearly 1,000 students.

Clearing Plus: context and consequences

The case can certainly be made for an improvement to the admissions process. Recent research from the student specialist marketing group Net Natives showed that some 19% of prospective undergraduate students were considering changing their course during this year’s admissions cycle, while 16% were considering changing their university. In 2019, meanwhile, Clearing students contacted an average of 2.9 institutions each, with almost one in five students contacting five or more institutions. Some 46% of students said that they felt nervous going through the Clearing process.

Enter Clearing Plus. But first, some background on how and why the new system came about. “In the middle of the UK’s lockdown, in response to fierce lobbying by vice-chancellors from some of the UK’s oldest and biggest universities, the Department for Education (DfE) announced a package of ‘support’ for universities and students,” recalls Professor Richard Harvey, academic director of admissions at the University of East Anglia. “It soon emerged that the financial aspect of the support amounted to bringing forward cash – which the universities were due anyway.

“As for the remaining measures, there were two that caught the eye. The first was a cap on student numbers, designed to stop certain universities ‘eating all the pies’. The second was described by the DfE as an ‘Enhanced Clearing Service’, allowing students with better-than-predicted grades to ‘trade-up’.”

Dr Katherine Lloyd Clark, assistant director (student access, recruitment and admissions) at the University of Exeter, takes up the story. “Ucas is promoting Clearing Plus as a new way for applicants to obtain more personalised match information for Clearing course vacancies,” she explains. “Ucas appears to have promoted this new tool to government as part of Covid-19 mitigation for applicants – but it was, in fact, in development before the crisis.”

Professor Harvey has his reservations about the initiative. “‘Trading-up’ in education has been an obsession among English governments of various political hues. Yet the fact is that it is not popular, and for good reasons. Schools encourage students to think seriously about whether university is right for them: there is a long counselling period (at least six months) during which students think very carefully about their academic interests and personal circumstances, before producing a shortlist of potential universities.

“Is it then likely, after six months’ counselling and eight months’ academic work, followed by a painful wait for grades, that a student will suddenly decide to go somewhere else? It is not. If they move at all, it is most likely to be another university on their shortlist or longlist.

“As numerous studies have shown, educational mobility starts at home and quick fixes from people in admissions are far too late to work. My own observation, working at a university that accepts just the right number of applicants from state and private schools, is that achieving balance in educational admissions is a very long-term effort that requires a big team working from primary school onwards.”

Clearing Plus is, as Professor Harvey explains, essentially an automated version of the Direct Contact Service which has run for the past five years, and which allows universities and colleges to make direct contact with unplaced applicants once results have been received.

‘Trading-up’ in education has been an obsession among English governments of various political hues – Professor Richard Harvey, UEA

“I view Clearing Plus as a relatively minor perturbation. The real excitement this year is certainly not Clearing Plus, but whether students will come at all. My own opinion is that it would be mad to miss out on the opportunity to come to university this year. Every university is dramatically transforming their education: each learning experience is being redesigned to be Covid-secure; substantial investments are being made in learning technology; faculty members are stopping their summer research period to re-imagine courses into shorter blocks with lecture capture, online video components and other captivating enhancements. Indeed, a great number of items on the wishlists of Students Unions (and pro-vice-chancellors) are going to be implemented in very short order.

“Typically, and unhelpfully, this has been characterised in the press as ‘going online’, with the implication that it is a cheap alternative to face-to-face education. Nothing could be further from the truth. Armies of educationalists and senior academics are working night and day to redesign courses to be both Covid-secure, and better than the previous offerings.”

Dr Lloyd Clark, for her part, takes the view that the impact of Clearing remains to be seen. “It should save applicants time in searching for vacancies – but there is always a concern that it will promise more than it can actually deliver. Clearing offers are still made by the individual institutions themselves – each of whom has their own approach, allowing different deadlines for a decision.

“Clearing Plus doesn’t streamline this element. It may actually add to the pace and pressure of Clearing, both for applicants and for admissions staff, at an immensely challenging stage of the 2020 cycle. It does, though, offer scope for universities to target their Clearing activity to particular groups (widening participation, for example) or disciplines. It will be interesting to see whether applicants feel targeted and supported, or bombarded!”

Student recruitment: the bigger picture

It all contributes to a uniquely challenging year for undergraduate recruitment. “Our numbers at Exeter are looking very strong with higher volume and even stronger conversion than last year,” Katherine reports. “However, the numbers are radically unpredictable this year. Although, so far, more students have asked to cancel gap years and come in 2020 than do the reverse, we could still see deferral requests increase, fewer EU students able to travel, and somewhat higher early withdrawals if the campus or learning experience is not as expected.”

However, universities like Exeter, who have moved quickly to provide a rich online recruitment experience, may flourish. “We have been very successful in switching all our outreach, recruitment and conversion activity online. Our team positively relished the opportunity to do this when lockdown came, and we were up and running with replacement, virtual offer-holder ‘visit’ events in May.”

Dr Lloyd Clark also hopes that the adaptability and versatility shown by universities in 2020 will serve future recruitment cycles. “I hope that, in the next recruitment round, we will preserve much of the creativity of this one. It would be a shame to go back to all those air miles, all those student road trips around the UK, and all those hard-copy prospectuses with a very short shelf life. I would like to see the best of our digital recruitment preserved, blended with better use of face-to-face advice and guidance.”

She also wishes for the role of university outreach staff to be better recognised, for its capacity to present in-depth reflections on a course, its content and unique features, and on campus life more generally. “I believe we could do better around student recruitment, in the way we respond to specific course enquiries and questions about university life in general. Hopefully our digital upgrade will have equipped us to share this information amongst ourselves and our applicant communities better in the future. For example, we now have many more taster lectures online, while more of our academic and outreach staff have direct experience of hosting online Q&A sessions.

“It is also great to see more tools available to support peer-to-peer student recruitment. Unibuddy, for example, provides the authenticity that prospective students are looking for, as well as incredibly valuable employment for our current students. It is a win-win – though the big question is how far student recruitment teams can continue to buy new tools and packages alongside all the traditional resources, such as Ucas Fairs.”

Clearing from home

Gemma Harding is head of client services at CallCare, who manage the Clearing process for multiple universities, from overflow support to stress-testing systems beforehand, as well as managing all incoming calls during Clearing itself. “With the recent changes and home working, there’s even more pressure on universities to manage Clearing from home,” Gemma notes. “What’s more, with the potential of fewer applicants this year, each and every phone call becomes even more important to answer.

“Universities may be under pressure to get staff back in the office for Clearing. However, given the need to spend money on protective and social distancing measures, they may not be able to get as many staff back in the office as they may need on the day. By outsourcing their Clearing calls, they can put measures in place with no rush, and gradually bring staff back in in-line with their own business aims for returning to work. They may have also had staff furloughed and may want to keep them on furlough for as long as they can to help finances.

“One way for universities to resolve this is by using outsourced services, who already have staff in the office and have a full set up with tech and disaster recovery procedures in place. This will mean that they won’t lose out on any calls on the day, and can run a much more streamlined and efficient Clearing experience.”

Future focus

Owen O’Neill, founder of the free university comparison website University Compare, sees Clearing Plus as a welcome disruption. “We have adopted a similarly personalised approach for years, and our feedback shows that it allows students to be more focused in their matched choices.

It will be interesting to see whether students feel targeted and supported or bombarded! – Katherine Lloyd Clark, University of Exeter

His concern, though, is whether Ucas may simply use the new facility as an additional advertising channel for universities. “A ‘personalised’ approach like this must not feature advertising, as this dilutes the product offering. Students should not be matched with universities that are paying. I trust that Ucas have the students’ best interests at heart. I have no doubt that Clearing Plus will add value for students: we just don’t know how much yet.”

By way of context, Owen adds, it’s clear that universities’ approach to advertising and marketing has changed recently. “We’re now seeing many universities wanting to re-engage those prospective students who have previously expressed an interest. Where previously we saw a more shotgun approach to recruitment, we’re now seeing a more focused approach – concentrating on those students who show a higher likelihood of enrolling.”

Looking ahead, Owen sees both challenges and opportunities in the recruitment arena. “Next year will be fascinating: the delays and halts to students’ plans brought about by Covid-19 will produce a larger than usual student intake. I think we will see some economic downturn, which will produce a more competitive job market. This will create demand for university places at all levels of study.

“I believe we will see a 5% increase in university places for September 2021 and a further 5–10% for September 2022 – subject to the government returning to looser recruitment caps for universities. I think universities have an excellent opportunity to recruit more students than ever before – and students have a unique opportunity to secure a place at the university of their dreams.”


Contacts

Net Natives: www.natives.group
CallCare: www.callcare247.com
University Compare: www.universitycompare.com

Useful links

Unibuddy: www.unibuddy.com


Expert comment

For CallCare, the key to providing an effective clearing service is preparation. The company’s head of client services, Gemma Harding, explains: “You never know how it will go. You can’t anticipate how many calls you will receive and how your system will handle them on the day.

“It’s a stressful time for everyone involved and the last thing you want is for your system to go down in the middle of the morning. By testing your system ahead of time, you can plan how you’ll handle it.

“Once we have analysed the results, we can put an effective disaster recovery plan in place. Whether that’s outsourcing the handling of overflow calls should you get too busy or, having a seamless back up should your systems go down completely.”

With this preparation, CallCare insists, you can provide the best service, keeping prospective students calm and handling their case in the most efficient way possible.

The benefit to the university is a clean process that provides a seamless line of communication on the day, no matter the circumstances.


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