10 August 2021 was a calmer, more organised Clearing. Teacher assessed grades were confirmed early this time round, and the entire sector had time to plan and prepare for what that meant. But with the 18-year-old demographic finally rising for the first time off the back of a downtrend, and seeing growth in the mature audience too, we were in for a busy, demanding Clearing. ​

The numbers certainly came through. By the end of A Level Results Day there were a record 400,310 placed applicants at their firm choices (7.2% up on 2020 and 9% up on 2019). News was dominated by the jump in A Level grades and even though universities had adjusted their offers to cope with this change, many students were delighted to know that they had got into their first choice.

At the same time, this left just shy of 150,000 students free to be placed through Clearing, and although there had been some activity throughout the day, things certainly seemed a little quieter than expected. Students placed through Clearing were similar to 2020 figures and quite a way behind 2019. And what’s more, as we moved through the next two weeks, both the Clearing and direct-to-Clearing placement numbers significantly lagged behind previous years.

Let’s delve into the data, see what it’s telling us and what we can learn:

The UK: The rise of the 18 year old and the mystery of the unplaced students

Certainly, a large proportion of the increase in placed students on Results Day came from UK-based 18-year-olds. A huge rise of 20% YoY with 38,000 extra students placed. What’s more, UK 18-year-old placements at higher tariff universities were up 29% to the 100,000 mark, already ahead of the 2020 end-of-cycle total.

This jump in 18-year-olds confirming more places at higher tier institutions meant that these universities quickly filled up and therefore removed Clearing spaces usually reserved for students with lower grades. For many students, their choice of institution type was completely wiped from the table.

Now, two weeks after Results Day, there are still 89,060 UK candidates free to be placed in Clearing. Numbers we haven’t seen since 2016. If we break down this group we can see that 56,030 (63%) are over the age of 18 and 39,480 (44%) are 21+. 

What's notable is that there has been a shift towards a larger, older segment of potential Clearing candidates. It's likely that this is the case because this segment only has a small pool of institution options due to existing family and job commitments, and therefore with many universities filling up their places before Clearing even opened, this older student segment could be locked out. They are less able to travel around the country to attend the still-available institutions, and they remain unplaced. 

But that doesn’t answer the question as to why we are seeing so many more 18 year old candidates still waiting to be placed.

Our conclusion? Throughout this cycle, students will have been told to go for higher tier universities and more competitive courses as the opportunity with teacher assessed grades gave them a better chance to get into their preferred institutions. But, when they did not achieve the grades, on top of two years worth of stress and worry around Covid, exams and teaching, the prospect of going to a second-choice university through Clearing was enough to stop many in their tracks. This concoction of factors will have left many students disillusioned and despondent about higher education in general.

International: The opportunities for the future

The international undergraduate market in the UK has been overshadowed by Brexit for the last few years. We certainly saw the impact of the UK leaving the EU after the UCAS January deadline numbers came through and this has been demonstrated in a huge drop in placed firm choice applicants from 22,820 to 9,650 (a 58% reduction) and an overall drop in placed EU candidates of 43%. Not hugely surprising.

However we’ve seen continued growth from non-EU countries throughout both Brexit and the pandemic (perhaps a little more surprising).

Both China and India remain the largest student export markets to the UK, with India growing at a faster rate.

However there has also been significant growth in applications over the last year from the US, Nigeria, Malaysia and Turkey. They don’t boast the same numbers as India and China but when planning international campaigns for 2021/2022, we would recommend putting budget into both research and media investment in these countries.

At this stage there are 41,960 non-EU international candidates free to be placed through Clearing, with most of those in the 18-21 age group. At this stage it may well be difficult to attract this segment given the logistics of travelling and Covid, however by putting in time now with these cohorts, it may well pay dividends in next year’s cycle.

As for Direct To Clearing...

The direct applicant numbers have been on the rise over the last few Clearing cycles, and the increase in demand for nursing and other medicine adjacent courses may have suggested that this would have continued into this year. However, at this stage in the cycle, we are about 35% behind previous years. We know from the NCS that the older direct applicant applies much later in the cycle, so we may see an upturn over the coming weeks for the mature direct applicant. We’re watching this space and will report back soon.

But what to do now? For both tactics now and for the annual planning cycles into 2022:

1. Win over the disillusioned youth

  • Youthsight reported that empathetic and more serious content was received better by students this year - make sure to match this tone and to offer a two-way dialogue with students, giving them the options to talk to students and staff and creating a feeling of belonging.

  • Break the negative connotations that prospective students may have with going to university, such as being trapped in their room, doing their classes online and not being able to socialise. As the vaccination program takes effect and the UK enters a world without restrictions, a totally new university experience has opened up.

  • Authenticity is key, no matter what channel you are using to communicate with prospective students, make sure it rings true with the audience and creates a sense of realness.

2. Use your first-party data

  • With the drop in demand this year, your first-party enquiry and applicant data is golden. Think carefully about your remarketing strategy, making it bespoke and relevant to each student segment at this very specific time in their journey.

  • Ask these students questions, through surveys or do a social media poll, to find out why they may not have yet chosen a place to study through clearing. It will allow you to align comms with their current mindset.

3. Concentrate budget on local mature audiences

  • The largest growing group of potential Clearing candidates is an older demographic that are less likely to travel beyond their own front door. Make sure you make the most out of the local prospective student audience and along relevant commutable lines with messaging that is relevant for them.

  • Time is not yet up for the older direct to Clearing audiences, continue to invest in this segment right up to start dates with a long tail approach.

4. Make investment now into key international markets

  • Do the research now into key international markets such as China, India, US, Malaysia, Nigeria and Turkey. Understand who the students are, where you can reach them, what demographics have a higher propensity to enrol.

  • There are still lots of international UG students waiting to be placed, by speaking with these students now you are building your brand with a potential future cohort.

5. Plan for the year ahead effectively

  • This year and last year has shown us that clearing does not always go the way we plan. By strategically planning for the year ahead, understanding the student better, building your brand and utilising the latest technology to create a seamless experience, you will put yourself in a much stronger position for next year.

  • Invest now into market research to better understand the prospective student, to understand course appetite and demand, their motivations and barriers to study, their changing behaviours so that you are best placed to engage with them over the coming months.

There’s a lot to digest we know, and even more to learn from. But that’s where we come in. If you would like to find out more about how to use this insight and arm yourself for another competitive cycle in 2022, get in touch with Nick and our team

Article by

Nick Willmer

Head of Education