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13 August 2015

End the madness of clearing – and boost social mobility too

Making students apply to university after their A-level results is a way of boosting social mobility on the cheap. 

By Tim Wigmore

It’s A-level results day. Log on to Facebook or Twitter and you won’t be able to escape it: universities like Birmingham and Sussex have taken to advertising spare spaces on social media, ready to be taken by whoever has the fastest broadband connection.

This is no way to determine which university someone ends up at. Yet this year as many as 100,000 university places will be allocated through clearing, going not to the most qualified students but simply those who, in their desperation to get to university, call up any half-suitable institution that they know have a place, doing any course they feel vaguely comfortable with. They are governed by desperation to do something somewhere, not by consideration of what is the best course and university for them.

The harum-scarum system of clearing is madness. And it is bad for universities, too, who end up being lumbered with many students who lack the motivation to study their course for three years. It is also bad for the taxpayer: more pupils doing unsuitable courses means more students who drop out or switch courses, and so more government money being wasted.

A better way is not hard to chart: move A-levels forward a few weeks, and speed up marking too. As in most other countries, British students should apply to university with their complete results, not dependent on predicted grades.

This would not only end the bedlam of clearing and lead to students at courses and universities that provided the best fit for their talents. It would also be good for social mobility. Relying on predicted grades is disastrous for disadvantaged students, who are more likely to have their results under-predicted than more advantaged pupils. A study two years ago found that private school pupils with three A*s are 9% more likely to be offered a place at Oxford than state-educated pupils with the same grades.

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Having endured the whole university application process once, pupils are understandably loath to take a gap year and re-apply if they have succeeded the expectations of their teachers and themselves. Both Martin Harris and Les Ebdon, the former and current Director of the Office for Far Access, support introducing post-qualification admissions on the grounds that it would help more disadvantaged students get into elite universities.

Politicians of all stripes are united in bemoaning the lack of social mobility today. Making students apply to university after their A-level results isn’t just intrinsically sensible – it’s also a way of boosting social mobility on the cheap.