Students fight for places through Clearing as unis tackle record number of top grades

While it’s commendable that so many of this year’s cohort achieved top A-level grades, the high proportion of students who gained entry to their first-choice university means there are now fewer places available through Clearing

A record number of students achieved top grades on A-level results day (10 August) this year, and many are now celebrating winning their place at their first choice university. Some students, however, are still uncertain as to what their future holds, since the proportion of high achievers means there are now fewer places available through Clearing.

According to data from higher education (HE) enrolment company IDP Connect, significant numbers of prospective students are now hoping to secure a place at university through Clearing – the process by which HE providers occupy unfilled places on courses for the next academic year – via their websites.

Whatuni and Complete University Guide, which are owned by IDP, reached over 150,000 users on results day earlier this week, which is five times the average number of users per day in July. Figures show that the average grade tariff points searched by students seeking a Clearing course also increased from 119 to 124 on the IDP sites.

While top grades should of course be celebrated, it does have negative knock-on consequences for some, since many prospective students who excelled in their A-level subjects may now be struggling to find a course they feel meets their level of achievement, particularly in the most popular subjects.

The swarm of high achievers also complicates things for universities themselves, making it harder for them to identify the most suitable candidates for their programmes. On top of this, students who are looking to ‘upgrade’ their selected course after receiving better results than expected are contributing to an already crowded process.

Top grades 2020 vs 2021

2020 top tariffs searched Equivalent grades 2021 year top tariffs searched Equivalent grades
1 128 ABB / A*BC 128 ABB/A*BC
2 136 AAB / A*BB 120 ABC
3 120 ABC 136 AAB/A*BB
4 112 BBC / ABD 144 AAA/A*AB
5 144 AAA / A*AB 112 BBC/ABD

Students recognise that strong grades can be used as currency to gain entry to top programmes and universities, but with higher grades awarded in a year with lots more 18-year-olds in the population, demand for top courses is steep. Those with entry requirements of 144 grade tariffs, for example, equivalent to AAA or A*AB, were the fourth most popular sought-after grades in 2021, up from a fifth in 2020. While this data reflects the record-breaking number of top grades earned this year, it also shows just how many high-performing students are relying on Clearing to help them find an alternative study destination.

Preliminary data drawn from student searches on the IDP websites shows that the search volume is on the rise generally in 2021, but that demand is particularly high for health and medicine courses, many of which have government-set limits on the number of places that can be awarded to each cohort.

On the findings, Simon Emmett, CEO of IDP Connect, commented: “Students have gone into this year’s Clearing period feeling confident that they are highly qualified candidates, and after a hugely challenging 18 months they are determined to secure the best possible university experience available to them. However, the trends on Whatuni and Complete University Guide show there are still a huge number of students, many with top grades, seeking to find the right course. With concerns over top courses filling up fast, the challenge for the higher education sector right now is to support as many students as possible to make the decision that is right for them.”

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