How clearing works, on A-level results day

Aug 13, 2015

Proportion of top-level grades falls slightly, but record numbers of students are offered university places

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Students across the country are finding out whether they have achieved the A-level results they need to get into the university of their choice – as the clearing system for unfilled university places gears up for a record year.  

The number of top level grades has fallen slightly, but more students than ever before have managed to secure places at universities, the BBC reports.

The drop in the number of papers receiving A* and A grades was particularly noticeable in English, Maths and science subjects.

The overall pass rate has risen by 0.1 per cent and Ucas says 409,000 places have been confirmed, an increase of 3 per cent from last year.

"This year's A-level students are among the best qualified in a generation," said schools minister Nick Gibb.  "I want to congratulate them on today's results which reflect the dedication of teachers and young people across the country." 

For those who don't manage to get the grades they'd hoped for, the advice is: don't panic. Applicants can still go through the Ucas clearing system to secure a place on a different course.

Disappointment may give way to stress as students are forced to weigh up other options, but going through clearing doesn't have to mean settling for second best.

"While a disappointing set of grades are understandably disheartening, Clearing needn't be as stressful or as overwhelming as it's made out to be," says the Daily Telegraph.

What do students do first if their results are worse than expected?

Go in to college, is the BBC's advice. Teachers will be able to advise students on what to do next. Some students will have missed out on their first choice but may still be offered a place on their second, the 'insurance' option. Others may not be able to take up either offer – and clearing is their next step.

 What is clearing – and how long does it take?

Clearing is the process of matching would-be students who no longer have an offer from a university – usually  because they didn't make the grades – to universities who have unfilled places. Some of those empty slots are created because the students to whom they were promised have not achieved good enough grades. Most spaces are filled within a few days, so students have to act fast to secure themselves a position.

How does clearing work?

Would-be students need to take charge of the process themselves, finding an alternative course from the official list of vacancies, researching it and then calling the university in question directly to try to secure a place. "Still the nerves and warm up the telephone voice," advises David Ellis in the Daily Telegraph, offering plenty of advice on what he calls a "daunting process".

Where do students find a list of vacancies?

Ucas, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, maintains an official list of vacancies on its website. It also runs a customer support centre on 0371 468 0468 which advises individuals on their progress through clearing.

Are the best courses available through clearing? 

Clearing used to be seen as a route to a consolation prize, but this is changing. The Daily Telegraph reports that at least 18 out of the 24 universities in the elite Russell Group (which includes Oxford and Cambridge) are offering courses through clearing, including biology, chemistry, physics, economics, maths, geography, history, English, French and German. Some of the best universities are treating clearing as "akin to the football transfer windows", says higher education expert Mike Boxall, using the process as an opportunity to find students who have performed better than expected.

Advice from the experts

Ucas recommends that students check their website regularly as the list of available courses is updated continually. "You might not find the exact unis/colleges/courses you're looking for – some might be full, but some might get vacancies later on so keep checking back." 

"Don't say 'I'll take anything,' even if you're devastated," Simon Ells, head of admission at Birmingham City University, told The Guardian. "A wrong choice costs too much time and money."

Experts also suggest that students look into combination degrees where there are often more spaces, even at top universities. "Joint honours degrees can be a good compromise," says Chris Ellicott, director of student services at Bath Spa University. "They still include many modules from your original choice, but with exciting new elements."

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