Is the UCAS clearing system 'unethical' and really so 'demotivating' for other students?


Online Editor Hannah Worthington questions recent twitter discussion which held the opinion that Clearing, the annual UCAS process which enables students to find available university places having missed/rejected other offers, is economically 'unethical' and morally 'unfair' to students who had to meet higher grade requirements.

Dubbed as the 'Black Friday' in academia, clearing on results day has become an important life-line for both under and over performing students across the UK. Yet the above twitter thread suggests the clearing platform is a system abused by materialistic univerisities who simply wish to seek as many 'bums on seats' as possible in competition with other institutions, and an unjust means of securing a place at University. Not only, many argue, because students can still get onto challenging and competitive courses with lower grades in comparison to their future peers who met offers, but also because students do not have to write/re-write personal statements tailored to specific Universities, nor do they have to spend hours creating/re-creating a high quality qualification profile on UCAS; they simply get in.

Annual increase of students entering the UCAS Clearing process:

Statistics accumulated from the Telegraph and AOL (from UCAS' Press Association).

By holding onto the aid of clearing spots and in avoiding time spent on fine tuning applications, some view Clearing as a 'tactical' manouvre to get into top universities whilst doing less administrative work. Unkown or underexplored to many, Clearing as a service opens as early as July. Though students admittedly don't have their grades, and much of the panic clearing happens on results day, those in education have time to contact universities, assess their options and prepare.

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Students have thus also voiced moral implications to do with schooling, and the support that private independent schools can provide, enabling their privelaged pupils to still ascertain the top Russell Group spots, in comparison to schools in less developed areas who do not have the funding to offer support. A student on their own trying to suss out the time-ticking system against an examination support office sorting a place for their student surely points out these prejudices.

An incoming Geography student, who wishes to be anonymised, responded to Epigram via the Fresher's 2018-19 page and told us that they purposefully neglected making any confirmed or insurance choices on UCAS and indeed pre-planned to go through clearing:

‘It was a risk to rely on clearing as a way to get into a top university such as Bristol. However, with my predicted grades being low (BBB), I would have had to accept not getting into a top Russell Group institution. I decided if my grades didn’t come out better, then I won’t go to University at all. I took a chance at the clearing system with good grades and it worked for me.’

This scenario is admittedly one that saw a prospective student get into the University with required grades - yet it still proves that a game can be played with UCAS, even if a high risk entails.

However to say that the UCAS clearing platform is unfair or unjust towards students who met required grades seems a rather narrow-minded view when considering University life. Have we once stopped to think in a seminar or when meeting people at University whether they got in through clearing? Whether they were 'bright' enough to be there? In some cases, it is not about being bright enough, it can be a rubbish test paper, half a mark in a French oral examination, extentuating circumstances.

Importantly, the University still accepts many applicants who achieved below the grade requirements - at times, the same grades that a student who missed out elsewhere is trying to apply with in clearing... The hypocrisy here is twofold.

Bristol students have their say:


Bristol students and instagram users had their say on whether or not they thought the clearing system was fair. Of the 737 users who viewed the story, a majority of 63% said they did not think clearing was unfair on other students.

A third year student Jack who is now studying Law at Lancaster University, narrowly missed out on his grades to get into Bristol. Due to the competitive nature of the degree, he was rejected:

‘Clearing provided me with another opportunity. Some students work incredibly hard and unfortunately fall short at reaching the top. To prohibit a hard working student from going on to further study at Universities such as Bristol is what would be 'unfair'.

Imogen Horton, incoming News Editor at Epigram, agrees. Where one can easily snub the clearing process as unfair in the way that students can get into the University with lower grades, the process for the student going through clearing can be equally as unjust.

Though Imogen had a unique experience with the clearing process, the aftermath of results day still brings great stress for clearing students:

'I had an absolute nightmare getting through to anywhere (University) on the phone. I had three mobiles going and would just answer to whoever picked up first. Most of my friends had their clearing sorted out by the Friday, but my situation went on for a week - I was given hope by my first choice university that ultimately didn't work out'.

The idea that clearing students 'have it easy' and are able to sort out everything over 'one phone call' is a naïve and generalised view.

Yet Imogen does think that 'clearing can be a money making exercise'.

Image: The Telegraph

To see Bristol's infamous Victoria Rooms slashed across the headlines, and to have the knowledge that other University administration desks offered places through Snapchat as a medium, undergraduates will rightly question and express concern as to how this might impact University prestige and integrity. Bristol this year had 109 available courses open to students in clearing; History of Art, Economics and Accounting, Vetinary Nursing and Zoology were just some of the courses that in previous years have been increasingly competitive.

This consumerist culture may indeed ply and leech on to 'desperate' candidates, but in filling up these spaces, and in getting 'bums on seats', Bristol is ensuring that a course can still run with enough support and funding - even if this is ethically questionable. I would certainly rather a full class with a compassionate tutor, than an empty one and a disinterested supervisor because the individual department is not seen as a priority.

Online Music Editor Bethany Marris who secured her place at Bristol via clearing to study History also spoke on this issue:

'To somewhat contradict the idea that clearing is just a way to get 'bums on seats': the grade requirements that I had to meet were barely dropped from the original criteria.'

Universities are ultimately businesses, and students, their customers. This in principle has always been economically unethical, and clearing is just an extension or a means to supply additional institutional income. Yet if we went on the basis that clearing is 'demotivating' or unfair, then we would by shying away from the fact that every single Bristol undergraduate could have been subjected to the Clearing hotline. Grades are not secured nor guruanteed (unless applying post-results) - the unexpected can always happen even to the highest of achievers.

Featured Image: UCAS / Results-Clearing

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Hannah Worthington

Online Editor 2018/19 | Online Style Editor 2017/18 Undergraduate English and Theatre Student