Not everything in life goes to plan. From childhood we have been advised not to put all our eggs in one basket for fear of losing them all in a giant cataclysmic omelette. Yet a Which? survey reveals that 54 per cent of students who have just received their A-level results have done exactly that: they have no Plan B in place if their eggs crack and they fail to achieve their grade targets.
This is in spite of the fact that the UCAS process steers school leavers towards selecting an insurance choice as back-up. But the study found that over half the students interviewed have no intention of attending their second choice university. For, while some may have accepted an offer, 40 per cent said they did not rate the institution or course they have selected and had no intention of taking up the place. A further 23 per cent, showing some strategic naivety, have accepted back-up offers which require the same grades as their first choice.
The UCAS Clearing system will be required to deal with it all in a very short period of time and that is no mean feat. By the end of July 2014, there were 367,490 potential students holding conditional offers. For most the wait is over: Scottish Higher results were released on 5th August and A-level results for the rest of the UK were released today.
The reality is, of course, that school leavers will have to ask to be released if they do not want to take up places with their insurance universities. If this is the outcome they want, they will then be free to join those who failed to get the grades required for either their first choice or their insurance choice. As free agents, they can then use the Clearing system to match their qualifications with courses and universities where spaces are available. Navigating the system is not particularly difficult, especially if preparation has been done before results day, but prospective students may nonetheless be in a state of panic and will inevitably find the process stressful.
Over the next few weeks, many school leavers will therefore be researching courses and universities for the first time with a view to making important decisions very quickly indeed. Universities with vacancies looking to fill courses for the 2014/15 academic year will need to pull out all the stops to attract prospective undergraduates and as initial research is usually undertaken via the web it is important for an organisation’s online profile to be as compelling as possible.
After the surprise government announcement in December 2013, undergraduate numbers are due to increase by 30,000 in September 2014. This marks a halfway house towards removing the cap on student numbers entirely for 2015, when universities will, in theory, be able to admit as many students as they can handle. Whether existing infrastructure and facilities will allow for exponential increases is debatable but members of the Russell Group have £9bn worth of capital investment in the pipeline to improve facilities and attract students, according to a recent report.
UCAS figures for 2012 reported that applications exceeded places available by 50,000. It therefore still seems likely that demand in 2014 is going to exceed supply. The increasing cohort of students come from a wide range of backgrounds, not just the old fashioned academic elite, and they expect a quantifiable return on their investment. A significant proportion also come from overseas and they, with a worldwide higher education system to choose from, will be influenced by reports of good student experience, impressive facilities and outcomes. UK universities will have to continue to make themselves as attractive as possible in order to compete for the kinds of students best suited to what their institution has to offer.
Meanwhile, the immediate issue of Clearing is underway, and this particular form of undergraduate speed-dating will be characterised by a flurry of online activity. For while Plan A options may be built on research and relationships developed over many months, Plan B choices are made on much briefer acquaintance. New relationships will be forged in just a few short weeks. For institutions with spaces to fill, attracting the best of these ‘floating’ students is a vital part of any Plan B.