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Clearing’s evolution throughout the pandemic and predictions for 2022

Students achieving higher grades and the effect this would have on undergraduate acceptances was a subject of many discussions last year. The positive outcome for most was that higher grades enabled more students to secure a place on their first-choice course and gave more students the opportunity to be placed at the higher tariff providers. The downside of this outcome was that Clearing was much slower than usual as per this analysis by Richard O’Kelly (Head of Data and Analysis at UCAS) and there was also significantly less appetite for the ‘Direct-to-Clearing’ route. Having grown steadily for the last few years, 2021 was definitely a turning point for students waiting to apply outside of the main cycle, with numbers placed via this route falling to levels from 5-6 years ago and even since the Covid pandemic began (14,925 compared with 24,755 in 2020, for example).

Changes in the behaviour of students

Interestingly there were also changes to applicant behaviour compared to the previous cycle according to the UCAS Clearing Survey Report 2021- one such example was applicants being more likely to pick up the phone to contact Clearing services, rising from 70% to 80% of prospective applicants. In recent years, universities have created alternative routes for students to be able to reach them during this time, but this most direct and immediate way of communicating, via phone, was a clear winner in 2021. Another development was the increased importance of location - still closely linked to the uncertainty of Covid. It wasn’t that students wanted necessarily to stay at home, but they wanted to be able to get home more easily should they need to. The other two areas that increased in importance year on year were the quality of teaching and knowing what support was available to them as students (academic, financial, mental health and wellbeing etc.)

The crucial learning from the survey was that getting a place via Clearing had a significant emotional impact on students and it was important for universities to show understanding and empathy when speaking to students. The above UCAS report stated that over 50% of respondents felt ‘stressed, worried and panicked’ when they realised they needed to find a place in Clearing, and that they needed universities to give them facts, practical guidance and reassurance.

Predictions for Clearing applications in 2022

After two turbulent years, the sector predictions for this year suggest students will have a new set of challenges. Covid has driven rising ambitions and applications from 18-year-olds across the UK, however the re-introduction of exams is creating greater uncertainty for applicants, meaning we are likely to see many more unexpected Clearing users than last year, UCAS predicts. The first post-Covid school leavers also face afight for fewer university places as reported by the Guardian earlier this month - with 2022 seen as a ‘transition year’ between what we’ve seen the last couple of years and previous pre-Covid figures. Many universities ended up with significantly more students than anticipated in the last two years and are therefore likely to be relatively conservative in the number of offers made. The 5% increase in the number of UK 18-year-olds applying this year, from 306,200 to 320,420, along with 6,000 more students holding deferred entry places, will make securing a place at many universities a highly competitive process this year.

As reported by UCAS in May, student confidence remains high; 61% are certain they will secure their first choice and 85% are confident they will get their required grades. . Overall, “applicants are feeling more confident about getting a place and are not anticipating as much disruption during this cycle, as well as felling more confident being assessed based on exams”. Whilst having to go through Clearing might be a surprise for prospective students this year - they’re not necessary being naive. Year-on-year, there has been a 6% increase in students making 5 main scheme applications and they seem to be open to different options, so making sure they know all about the options available to them, and supporting and guiding them through their decisions this year will be crucial.