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University admissions and Clearing: behind the scenes

Ruth South

Janet Graham

Supporting Professionalism in Admissions

It's that time of year again when universities and colleges, the media, parents, teachers and of course prospective students focus on exam results and getting their place in higher education through UCAS.

Higher education providers have been planning for this point in the admissions cycle for months, and it's truly a team effort. Admissions staff, academics, staff in student recruitment, marketing, IT, planning, registry, as well as accommodation and student services all play an important role. The spotlight, of course, is on staff working to confirm places, managing Clearing for those who don't have a place, and Adjustment for those who have a place, have exceeded their offer, and who want to switch to another university or college.

With the fall in the number of 18-year-olds and the removal of the cap in England on numbers entering HE for most courses, universities and colleges are competing for the pool of applicants at a level not seen before. The increasingly marketised environment means that incentives around offer making by some institutions will continue to be a feature of this year's Clearing.

So, what have institutions been doing to ensure that applicants get the best service possible and that they get the number and quality of students they want this year? 

A lot goes on behind the scenes before students even get their results. Universities and colleges are poised to receive and process the exam results, which they get under strict embargo slightly before students, enabling them to confirm places to those who have met or exceeded their offer.

It's not always quite so straight forward, but there are processes in place for students who may initially be disappointed on results day. Students who have just missed their offer may nevertheless be confirmed, or be considered for an alternative course. If not, they may take up their 'insurance' place, or be entered into Clearing.

Admissions staff also deal with any missing results, or after results are released, need to take account that some applicants will be waiting to hear about a re-mark. Some applicants will be waiting to meet other conditions – such as GCSE results that come out the week after A-levels.

With all this going on, it's important to stay on top of your numbers. Number crunching and target-setting may be particularly challenging this year, with so many external and internal variables to consider. Nevertheless, institutions will aim, in real time where possible, to keep their 'dashboard' up-to-date as things change to ensure they know their position against targets. It's crucial applicants know which courses are available in Clearing, so it's important that university and college websites, and of course the UCAS website, are kept as up-to-date as possible.

Final training will be provided for admissions and academic staff, and any student ambassadors involved in handling enquiries and calls, often in a university or college call centre. Following the Competition and Markets Authority advice to HE on consumer protection law compliance, institutions will need to be very clear to staff and applicants exactly when a contract is formed in Clearing, and that applicants through UCAS will have up to 14 days to change their mind as in any distance contract.

Another innovation is that UCAS is running for the second year a Direct Contact Service whereby participating universities and colleges, using UCAS analytics, can directly contact potential students in Clearing who have signed up to the service to speak to them about suitable vacancies.

This is the busiest, most adrenaline-filled time of year for all involved. There is always a tremendous buzz in universities and colleges, with staff sometimes as nervous as the students. The culmination of work at school or college and the move to higher education is always exciting, and it's just as invigorating for those working in a university or college.

Janet Graham, Director of SPA, the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme.

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