University places are up for grabs in Clearing – but students are not the winners

The fall in applications has led to fierce competition between universities, a drop in income and an uncertain future for both students and staff, argues Professor GR Evans

The A-level results are out. Applicants are getting to grips with fending for themselves in Clearing (no, they will not let your mother telephone for you).

But it is not just would-be students who are balancing their immediate options and hoping for a successful future. With 26,000 places still unfilled on results day, the providers of places are struggling to survive in the present funding system. The now almost complete replacement of the block grant for teaching with income from tuition fees means they have to bring enough students in or ultimately go under.

Yet the pool of UK school-leavers who can fill places and bring in the tuition fees with the aid of the Student Loans Company is shrinking and the drop in part-time applications continues unresolved. The valuable EU intake is being affected by the uncertainties of Brexit. International students, struggling with the expectations of Western European higher education, are reported to be thinking twice and looking elsewhere.

Some of the adjustment of admissions practice to keep numbers up has been visible. One way is to lower the A-Level grades required. Another is to require no grades at all. There has been a ‘huge’ noted rise in unconditional offers.

Students are using Clearing to game the system

That should have locked in a guaranteed number of students, but it seems to have prompted a new form of gaming. Even students holding such offers (prompted by ambitious parents) are said to be chancing an adventure in clearing in hopes of doing better for themselves. That has become possible only because some Russell Group universities have begun to have unfilled places available in clearing.

The harder A-level syllabus and the shift to end-of-course examinations will produce its first results this year. It was intended to meet the difficulty of grade-inflation and the problem that applicants admitted with highly respectable A-Level grades were struggling with degree-level work. The OFQAL plan to prevent this year’s candidates being disadvantaged by lowering of the grade boundaries to compensate may confuse the disrupted system of rating applicants still further.

Universities are expanding popular courses to bring in more money

Packing ’em in to bring in the money already has consequences for students themselves. Durham had admitted so many undergraduates in law and business studies that it planned to divide them into two groups and schedule lectures at 8.00am for one group to fit the extra teaching in. It has had to abandon that idea. Elsewhere too modules and whole degrees are being reorganised to accommodate larger groups in currently fashionable subjects.

There is a further consequence that can be glimpsed through the reports of angry UCU branches. The prompter is not simply the desperate need to divert academics to provision of teaching to meet the needs of the largest number of students which can be attracted to meet what may prove to be a short-term demand. It is complicated by the need to balance this desideratum against the need to bring in the largest possible tranche of research funding through the next Research Excellence Framework exercise.

To both ends, institutional research strategies may allow managements to frame a business case justifying the closing down of whole areas of research. But to expand coverage for more students, those on ‘permanent’ teaching-and-research contracts may be targeted for redundancy and then offered ‘transfer’ to teaching-only posts. Faced with this sort of thing, Leicester UCU is balloting about a strike.

The whole system is thus being destabilised by the need to bring in tuition fees and the impossibility of planning realistically ahead. Academic careers as well as student futures are made precarious.