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Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)


We create research to improve the education system and equalise opportunities for all.


Why wait until clearing to improve information available to students?

By IOE Editor, on 5 May 2020

By Dr. Gill Wyness

Incongruously announced in yesterday’s university support package, alongside the return of numbers caps and the bringing forward of quality-research related funding and tuition fee payments, is UCAS’ new Clearing Plus system. Clearing Plus is a new service which “matches students to universities or other opportunities based on their achievements and course interests.”

The idea of improving the match between students and universities sounds promising. Research by CEPEO’s Gill Wyness and Lindsey Macmillan, with colleagues from UCL Institute of Education and University of Texas at Austin, found a significant amount of mismatch in the UK system. Comparing undergraduate students’ qualifications to those of their fellow students revealed that around 15% of students were undermatched (attending a course that was less selective than expected, given their A-level results) and a similar amount were overmatched (attending a course that was more selective than expected).

Of course, we have no information about the preferences of students, and it may be the case that undermatched students simply preferred to go to the “less selective” course for a myriad of reasons. But, our results also revealed that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to undermatch and less likely to overmatch, choosing less academically selective courses than their more advantaged counterparts at every point in the attainment distribution. In other words, taking two students who had exactly the same A-level grades, no matter if they were three As or three Es, the poorer student would end up in a less selective course than the richer student. We even accounted for how difficult the A-level subjects were in our modelling, and this result still held.

When disadvantaged students behave in a way that is so systematically different from richer students, this has to ring alarm bells for social mobility. And interestingly, we found no evidence that geography – often cited as the key issue behind mismatch – was a factor in these socio-economic gaps. Nor was subject choice responsible. School attended appeared the biggest factor, suggesting that information provided by schools could be improved.

So, on this basis, Clearing Plus sounds promising. As part of a new “personalised Clearing system for students,” it will be produced in partnership with BBC Bitesize, and will allow unplaced applicants to “sign in to see their individual list of matched courses, and easily send an expression of interest to a university. Universities can then contact interested students, who will be able to add a new course to their UCAS application.”

Given our findings that mismatch is fairly prevalent in the UK, it seems strange that this new service will only available to those students who enter clearing. UCAS have pointed out that Clearing Plus can also be used by students who already have a confirmed place: however, to use the service, they have to first “self-release” into clearing. This sounds risky, especially this year, when students are already confused about the calculated grades system, and worried about their chances of securing a place. We also know from existing research that low SES students are more risk averse, so they may be less likely to take this risk, which could even exacerbate the SES gaps in match.

Surely a better idea would be to allow all students to avail themselves of a matching tool before they make their initial university choices, rather than once they’ve found themselves in clearing? We make this exact suggestion in our report on mismatch for the Nuffield Foundation, suggesting that the UCAS application service could be used to make course suggestions to students, based on their grades and subject preferences (and potentially other preferences such as location) at the point of application.

Even better, of course, would be a service which allows students to see their matches long before they start the application process. The cabinet nudge unit had a successful trial, in which high achieving GCSE students at schools which sent high proportions of students to their local university were sent a letter from a previous student at their school, encouraging them to apply to a better matched university, given their grades. There has also been successful work in this kind of information and guidance in the US.

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