The Student
Is clearing a good system for the allocation of remaining university places?
by Orla O'Dwyer, 6/12/18

According to UCAS, around 70,000 students in the UK were accepted onto a university course through clearing last year. Students left disappointed on results day can use the UCAS tool to find a place on a different course or at an alternative university if they don’t achieve the grades they had hoped for. Conversely, students with better grades than expected can also attempt to gain access to a university with harder requirements through adjustment. But is the current clearing system an effective way of allocating the remaining ‘free’ spaces at universities after results day? Is it fair to all students left without a university place?

In August 2018, two of Scotland’s most prestigious universities, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow, announced that all clearing places available to Scottish students would be filled by students living in postcode areas that are among the most deprived 20 per cent in the country. The aim is to meet targets set by the Scottish Government regarding widening access to higher education. Although clearly well-intentioned, not everyone has agreed that this new plan will actually create a fairer system for disadvantaged students applying to university. It has been argued that the SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) top 20 postcode areas, fail to accurately capture the most deprived 20 per cent of students. Many students living outside of these areas also face serious deprivation and poverty, but will not be able to benefit from the universities’ recent change in policy. There are, of course, also instances where students living within SIMD 20 postcode areas have faced no deprivation in their lifetime, yet will contribute towards government access widening targets by being accepted for these clearing places. It has been suggested that SIMD 20 postcodes should be used alongside information about other deprivation indicators, such as the performance of the school attended or whether a student received free school meals, to gain a clearer and fairer picture of which students really face the most deprivation.

Because the SIMD 20 areas are calculated using data about unemployment and income, there are also concerns that the many other ways in which students face deprivation are not being addressed. Certain personal circumstances can also account for why a student might achieve grades that are not representative of their full potential. Some argue that only offering clearing spaces to students from these areas ignores students that have experienced physical disabilities, mental illnesses, loss of a relative or have experienced other extenuating circumstances. 

In a society rife with inequality, however, many support the recent changes for how they have increased the opportunities offered to deprived young people who otherwise may not have the chance to go to university. They argue that, though the SIMD measurement is inevitably prone to inaccuracies and could indeed be improved, it ultimately incentivises more young people from these deprived areas to apply to university, where it may previously have been out of the picture – thus rectifying, to some degree, the education inequalities of the present day.

 But this is not the only issue the Scottish university system faces. There are a limited number of places available at Scottish universities for Scottish students. Due to the fact that Scottish students do not pay tuition fees, there is a cap placed on the number that can be accepted into each university each year, and all remaining places are filled by fee-paying students from the rest of the UK and overseas. Some would argue that prioritising English students for Scottish university clearing places is the more pressing issue and would prefer to see more clearing places being awarded to Scottish students. It is difficult, however, to see how this will be possible unless the Scottish Funding Council approves more free places.

The Scottish university clearing system continues to lie at the centre of the debate. Is it a system which successfully bridges the inequality gap in the education system of this country? Or is it misguided in its approach to positive discrimination? The debate is likely to continue for years to come, and we can only wait to see if the changes will be amended in the future.

Image: Sara Konradi