The Honest Marketer

Friday, 26 August 2011

Spare a thought for university administrators this Clearing

For years there has been widespread publicity about the number of disappointed prospective students in Clearing. This week saw predictions of 100,000 missing out on a place this September because they either didn’t get the grades needed or secure a place in the world of capped student numbers we now live in. But spare a thought for the university administrators...

Clearing is a stressful time for prospective students and quite rightly the focus is on the panic and anxiety they face. However, Clearing is becoming equally as stressful for those managing the recruitment process. Hitting the strict target on full-time undergraduate numbers is as much a lottery as the Clearing process itself. Universities face severe penalties if they overshoot targets – a £3K plus fine for every student over-recruited and the possibility that targets will be reduced in future years.

It’s not as simple as just recruiting the number of students you need and then pulling out of the process. There are a myriad of variables and uncertainties throughout the recruitment process which make predicting the numbers who will go on to enrol as scientific as staring into a crystal ball.

Not every student who accepts an unconditional offer will turn up. Of those given a conditional offer – some will not meet the grade requirements and others, again, will choose to go elsewhere, particularly if they get higher grades than anticipated. Insurance offers are completely unpredictable – in the past most insurance offers almost never came to their second choice institution, but with higher fees looming from 2012 it’s reasonable to assume that this behaviour will change as people try to enter Higher Education under the current fee regime.

Conditional university offers are dependent on results, most typically A-Level results which is why the Clearing process is perceived to begin on A-Level results day. In fact, Clearing begins much earlier and lasts much longer as many students are waiting on International, Access, BTEC and National Diploma results which are released at varying times. GCSE results came out yesterday and there will be students who have had to retake English or Maths to gain the minimum ‘C’ grade needed for some courses. Universities will have no idea how many of their conditional offers will be taken up until all of these results are confirmed and the universities have been notified by the students themselves (or UCAS if they are A-Level results).

Many universities have raised their entry requirements to try to increase the ‘quality’ of students they recruit, not least because this impacts on the wider student experience for all students, but also because it leads to greater retention and progression, which in turn impacts income and league table performance.

Students apply to a particular university based on the entry requirements published, but when it comes to A-Level results, universities are guided by the ‘predictions’ from schools or colleges. Unfortunately, these are not always very accurate. At Birmingham City University, this year, we experienced greater inaccuracy in predictions than previous years, which is distressing for the students, but also means that we found ourselves with places to recruit in Clearing that would otherwise have been filled much earlier in the recruitment process as our applications have risen year on year over the last three years.

Academic Planning and Admissions departments have developed sophisticated conversion models at course level to try to predict the number of students who will progress in each of the scenarios above, but over the last two years we’ve seen very different behaviour in student conversion with conversion generally rising in each scenario. Nothing is certain and managing numbers has to be done on a daily basis at course level, which is why prospective students will see courses being moved ‘in and out’ of Clearing. It’s also why we are encouraging people to check the list of courses on our Clearing pages at on a daily basis.

All in all, Clearing has become a lottery for everyone involved and the Government cap on numbers, as far as I can see, isn’t helping anyone.

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