Will ‘clearing plus’ really make it easier to apply to university?

Where once university choices may have felt set in stone come A-level results day, today’s students are much more likely to assess their full range of options through clearing. A record 73,320 people used the service in 2019 – evidence, if ever it was needed, that clearing is no longer a last resort for school leavers, but the smart student’s weapon of choice when it comes to planning their time at university.

This year’s cohort will have a new tool to add to their armoury: clearing plus. The new online service from Ucas aims to assist students in finding university places by using algorithms to match them with available courses to suit their grades. From July, unplaced applicants are able to sign in to their Ucas account to see a personalised list of suggested courses from a database of around 25,000. In theory, it should make the concept of clearing a lot less daunting than it was in the days of phoning a busy helpline.

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So how does it work? In short, the programme creates a match score between 0-1 based on how relevant a particular course is to a student, taking into account grades and subject profile as well as their subject choices. This score determines the order in which available courses are displayed, so that the best matched courses are at the top of the list. Courses are also grouped into “clusters” based on the proportion of applicants at each grade level and their other university applications.

As well as saving time and stress for students, its designers hope it will also help to widen access to higher education for underrepresented and socially disadvantaged groups. While universities can’t filter specifically for ethnicity or gender, they can target their courses towards underprivileged students based on measures which categorise individuals’ socio-economic backgrounds in accordance with their postcode. This means a university could choose to only make a course visible to students from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds with particular grades.

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, says the metrics “are not without flaws”. Experts have criticised postcode-based measures of disadvantage like POLAR in the past for drawing on outdated information and ignoring other important characteristics that might make a student more vulnerable.

That students using clearing plus might be encouraged to consider courses that candidates similar to them have chosen also rings alarm bells for Gill Wyness, assistant professor of economics at University College London. A study she co-authored on course matching found that women enrolled in courses that were just as academically prestigious as men, but lower-earning. “That was driven by subject choice – so if the algorithm points women to similar subjects as they put down on their original form, it may well exacerbate the problem.”

Another criticism is that clearing plus does not extend far enough. The service can be used by pupils who have confirmed places, but only on the condition that they give up their offers and “self-release” into clearing. “We know from existing research that socially disadvantaged students are more risk-averse, so they may be less likely to risk trading in their offers,” says Wyness. “Waiting until students are in clearing seems to be too late, when the majority of students have already taken up their places.’

While it’s too early to gauge what students themselves will make of the tool, the consensus from those familiar with clearing seems to be that the scheme is a welcome addition.

Iman Hussain, a 21-year-old computer sciences student, secured his place at the University of Wolverhampton through clearing in 2017 when he fell short of his expected grades. “Having the right data to create a shortlist of five to 10 universities could be a very useful tool, especially when students are faced with so much choice,” he says.

At the same time, he is wary of over-reliance on algorithms. “If the matches are being made for you based on data that might not be absolute, then it could really mess around with your future plans.

“For me, one of the best things about clearing was that it gave me the chance to speak directly to someone from the university and I don’t think clearing plus should ever replace that,” he adds. “I spoke to a previous student who put me through to an actual professor, and that made me feel really valued and that I had a route to take, regardless of grades.”

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Amy Smith, associate director of admissions at Nottingham Trent University, agrees that clearing plus has its limitations. “Not all students will have access to clearing plus and it will not show all available opportunities, so I would still encourage students to look on Ucas and contact universities to understand the full range of vacancies available,” she says. “Students will still need to be proactive and ready to talk to universities about submitting a clearing application to them.”

While universities like hers will encourage students to make use of the matching tool, she says students shouldn’t be afraid to call universities themselves. “We would also advise applicants to speak to current students or graduates about their experience.”

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