Clearing. The Black Friday of British higher education?

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halpin partnership

The transaction between prospective students and universities has always been unlike that of any other buyer/seller. Students chose their preferred universities and then universities chose the students they wanted. There was a balance between demand and supply which under the grant-funded regime used to seemed to work. It didn’t matter if only a handful of students chose a particularly obscure degree with no job prospects. The government grant would subsidise it, and the student would enter the job market with no debt to speak of.

Clearing used to be a tidy-up exercise for lower ranking universities to attract candidates who had missed their grades, and therefore their preferred university. More recently, Clearing became a means to fill unpopular courses at higher-ranked universities. The balance was beginning to topple.

The marketisation of British higher education which accelerated with the introduction of the £9,000 fee in 2012 has now destroyed whatever balance there was between demand and supply. Driven by the reduction in direct government grants and ‘liberated’ by the removal of the cap on student numbers, the vast majority of our universities have had no option but to compete with each other ever more strongly to maintain or increase their student enrolments. 

This situation is now being exacerbated by the reduction in prospective student numbers caused partially by short term demographics and partially by a more circumspect student cost/benefit analysis of whether a university education is right for everyone. Demand is down, supply is up. The result is a classic buyer’s market, with universities feeling forced to do whatever it takes to make it easier for students to join. How else can one explain the enormous growth in unconditional offers? Or the fact that at some league table-driven universities, 25% of students are given a first? Or that lower-ranked universities are giving out cash and other freebies in a vain attempt to attract ABB+ students.

It seems to me that the huge growth in Clearing we have seen is further proof that we are in a buyer’s market, where sellers will go to great lengths to achieve their numbers. In 2018, the vast majority of British universities, including 18 out of the 24 members of the Russell Group, are using Clearing as a last-ditch attempt to boost their income for the next three years. There are 26,587 courses available in the Clearing section of the UCAS website right now, including 4,706 from Russell Group universities.

Some universities are in Clearing to fill their less popular courses, which given the competition in the market and students’ concern about choosing a degree subject that employers respect, are more numerous than ever. Others are in Clearing to slow their long-term decline and delay the day that the Office for Students comes visiting to question their financial viability. 

From a university perspective, all of this is understandable and defensible. What is more concerning is whether the growth in Clearing is good for students. They will be making rushed decisions, not only about the university but about the course. Most of them will not have the opportunity to even visit the university. Some will be switch-sold courses they’d never considered or never even heard about, simply because there are places and a have a lower tariff. The short-term imperative of getting into ‘a university’ will for some transcend the need to make the right long-term decision. And this is the biggest decision they will have so far made in life, and one which will live with them for the rest of their days. 

‘Shopping around’ this coming weekend is fine if you’re in the market for a new phone or holiday. But it’s not good enough in a market which you’ve never experienced before, which is going to cost you £50,000 +, which is going to absorb three years of your life, and which it will take the rest of your working life to pay for. In short, Clearing should be kept on the margin, not allowed to become mainstream. Too many students buying in haste and repenting at leisure cannot be good for the quality and reputation of British higher education.