A-levels: University candidates face Ucas clearing scramble

14th August 2009 at 01:00
A shortfall in the number of new university places and a recession- fuelled surge in applications are predicted to have a dramatic impact on the outlook for A-level candidates who don't make the grade

Original paper headline: Ambitions down the drain: clearing leaves pupils high and dry

For generations of A-level candidates, the clearing system has been a handy safety net which ensures that, however hard they might fall on results day, they never hit the ground. But this year when sixth-formers attempt to walk the high wire from school to university there will be nothing there.

As a system, clearing still remains. In principle, pupils who fail to meet their university offer can still register with Ucas and contact admissions tutors to try to find a place on alternative courses.

But for pupils hoping that they are only a phone call away from weeks of meticulous preparation for the more fluid elements of student life, the reality this year is likely to be quite different. The places will simply not be there.

"There's no question: clearing is going to be short, sharp and quick this year," says Clare Beckett, head of student recruitment at Thames Valley University. "More and more students want to join the system every day. And there's very much a finite number of places available."

Fewer University places

The problem began last autumn, when then Universities Secretary John Denham announced there would be fewer places available this summer than anticipated. Instead of the 15,000 new ones he had promised to fund, the number was reduced to 10,000, of which only 3,000 were full-time.

Shadow higher education minister John Hayes has warned that the number of places available through clearing is likely to drop by two-thirds. He believes the outlook is dire: "As the recession bites, young people are being bitten hard, their hopes torn apart, their futures damaged," he said.

To make matters worse, while places were limited, the number of applications rose. Across all subjects, there were 9.7 per cent more applications than last year, equivalent to 52,000 would-be students. And numbers are even higher for vocational courses.

Applications for journalism degrees, for example, are up 27.2 per cent, and those for nursing have risen by 24 per cent. Courses such as mechanical engineering or hospitality have also seen rising levels of interest: in straitened economic times, pupils hope to improve their chances of finding work by training for a specific job.

A-level student takes positive view

"I believe this is the best time to go to university for the last 15 years," says Lewis Bateman, an 18-year-old at Wiganston and Queen Elizabeth I College, Leicester. He will be receiving the results of his geography, economics and travel and tourism A-levels this month; he needs ABB to take up his place studying geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

"It's a positive thing that people are going to university, because if they weren't there wouldn't be enough jobs for them. I'll be in university for three years. Hopefully, after three years, the economy will have picked up and the job market will be right back up."

Gerald Pryke, an adviser with Connexions, the Government's career service, agrees, although he phrases his view in less buoyant terms: "There are no jobs at the moment, so people see higher education as the default choice. So with the competition that people are facing, clearing is going to be tight this year."

The situation will be particularly frustrating for those pupils who miss their offers by only one grade. In the past, a university that issued a conditional offer of, say, 300 Ucas points might be prepared to accept 250 points on results day. This is unlikely to happen this year.

"A lot of my friends applied above their means," says Lewis. "If they were predicted BBC, they'd accept an AAB offer and an ABB `insurance' offer. So if universities aren't going to be lenient, everyone's going to slide down and there's going to be a lot of people without places. Everyone's very worried about clearing."

There are also increasing numbers of last-minute entrants to the system.

"Some of my mates have taken a gap year, and not one of them has been able to find a job yet," Lewis adds.

"There's just nothing coming up whatsoever. One friend is so worried that he's just filled out a Ucas form and is hoping to go through clearing."

Ucas introduce `adjustment period'

Meanwhile, for the first time, Ucas has introduced a parallel period called adjustment. During this time, pupils with better grades than anticipated can attempt to upgrade to a more prestigious course or university. Essentially, it is clearing without the initial heart-stopping brown-envelope moment.

"I'd be surprised if places opened for adjustment at red-brick universities," says Ms Beckett. "It would be different if there were a lot of places left on courses. But there just aren't."

And so increased numbers will be relying on the shrinking clearing safety net. Clearing is always competitive, and every year admissions tutors and careers advisers counsel pupils to indulge their offer-missing misery only long enough to reach the nearest phone. The more quickly pupils act, the more likely they are to find a place.

This year, however, Ms Beckett is recommending that pupils act pre- emptively, calling universities before they have even received their results. "In the past, clearing has been open for two to three weeks at Thames Valley," she says. "This year, I imagine it will be about a week. It'll be over and done with within a few days.

"So teachers and students should perhaps think about fall-back universities before results day. Students can make queries before results come out, and we can tell them if a course is likely to have places or to be full up. The groundwork can be done in advance, instead of in a rush on that first day."

What are the alternatives?

Pupils who fail to find places right away will be forced to consider alternative options. But Delyth Chambers, an admissions consultant for Birmingham and Manchester universities, insists that talented candidates will not be deprived of higher education.

"Don't despair," she says. "People might be reading horror stories and, yes, there may be more applicants this year. But if you don't get a place this year, you might find they offer you one for next year."

Mr Pryke agrees. "The number of vacancies will tail off dramatically by the end of August," he says. "And more so than in previous years. But people shouldn't panic. They can look at different courses at the same institution, the same courses at different institutions, different courses at different institutions."

He and Ms Chambers both caution would-be students against accepting the first offer that they receive, purely out of relief at having any offer at all.

"People shouldn't feel pressured to go to university now," says Ms Chambers. "Think carefully. Don't jump at the first offer made if you're not sure about it. It may well be that applying next year is the better option."

And Ms Beckett suggests that determined pupils consider more circuitous routes to their ultimate goal. "If they haven't perhaps achieved the grades to do a degree, they could look at taking an HND or a foundation degree instead," she says.

"That doesn't stop you topping up to a degree or even a masters. It's about not giving up, being persistent.

"It may feel like the end of the world, but it isn't. It simply isn't. Universities are interested in getting the right students. So just keep focused on finding the right place."

Ucas clearing guidance

  • What is clearing?
    • Clearing is the system that allows students who have not achieved the grades specified in their university offer to find a place on a course for the coming academic year.

      • What is the problem this year?
        • The Government initially promised to fund 15,000 new places at universities, but only provided enough money for 10,000. Meanwhile, 52,000 more pupils than last year applied for these places.

          • Why were there so many applications?
            • Because there are so few jobs available at the moment, many school leavers are hoping to ride out the recession at university.

              • Which courses are particularly competitive?
                • Again because of the recession, applications for some vocational courses have risen by more than 25 per cent since last year. Students hope that these qualifications will make it easier to find work in a tough economic climate.

                  • What should pupils do?
                    • Make calls early - don't necessarily wait for A-level results day. Talk to admissions tutors at your university of choice. They may be willing to overlook grades if a pupil has relevant extracurricular experience.

                      • Don't give up
                        • If someone really wants to go to university, it may be worth taking a year out or completing a lower-level qualification first.

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