UCAS’s latest data release shows the state of university applications at 30 June 2018, the end of the ability to apply for five universities simultaneously. Although six weeks before A-level Results Day, this date also marks the ‘official’ start of Clearing.

So, what does the data release tell us? And can it provide any insight into what’s to come in Clearing?

Amid UCAS’s typically positive spin – an increase in the application rates of English 18 year olds – and critical questions from the media about the difference in participation between men and women, we looked at which subjects have seen the most significant increases and decreases in applications, and how this compares to what students might be seeking in Clearing, using data from the National Clearing Survey.

UCAS data – winners and losers

Looking at UCAS’s analysis of applicants by subject group and country of domicile, we can see that the most substantial subjects in terms of applicant numbers have remained the same over the last three years: Subjects allied to medicine, business and administrative studies, and biological sciences. However, there has been a change at the top in 2018. There are now more people applying for business and administrative studies than subjects associated with medicine.

ucas data

While business and administrative studies have been relatively stable over this time, subjects allied to medicine has not fared so well. Between 2016 and 2017 there was a 15.16% drop, followed by an 8.98% drop from 2017 to 2018. This may not be a massive surprise. The category of subjects associated with medicine includes nursing, which accounts for a very large (although decreasing) proportion of applicants in this subject area. Since 2016, applications for nursing across the UK have dropped by 26.61%.

Biological sciences, meanwhile, after seeing a small decrease of less than 1% between 2016-17 is on the ascent, seeing a modest increase of 1.37% in applicants this year.

The three smallest subject areas – non-European languages, literature and related studies, technologies, and European languages, literature and related studies, have all seen year on year decreases, potentially calling into question the future for these subject areas.

How does Clearing compare?

Since 2015, we’ve been running the National Clearing Survey, the UK’s only independent survey delving into the motivations, processes and media use of Clearing students. And with over 3,000 respondents, we can draw reliable conclusions from the results.

In 2016 the three most popular subjects were biological sciences, law and psychology. And in 2017, the same three subjects were at the top again. The NCS data is not broken down by the same JACS codes that UCAS use and is much more granular – under the UCAS coding, psychology forms part of biological sciences. So, those with places available in biological sciences and psychology might want to start getting excited now.

Law, too, is a strong performer. As pretty much a single-subject ‘subject group’ under UCAS coding, it very much holds its own: it is the seventh largest subject group, by number of applicants, up to 30 June deadline, and has seen an increase of almost 7% in applicants since 2016.

Business studies was the fourth largest subject that National Clearing Survey respondents enrolled onto in 2017, and joint fifth in 2016.

In terms of change over time, we can look at the proportion of respondents who ended up choosing a particular subject to get a comparison between 2016 and 2017. Only a handful of subjects changed by more than a percentage point and all of those with the biggest change were in growth (rather than decline): biological sciences, psychology, law, and mechanical engineering. All the others remained relatively constant (changed less than one percentage point), including those subjects which have seen declines in applicants in the UCAS data: nursing and languages. This indicates that perhaps subject demand during Clearing remains relatively stable from year to year.

So, what will this mean for Clearing 2018?

  • Course is king – findings from the National Clearing Survey show that the majority of students do not change their subject of study in Clearing so lead your campaigns with course-level advertising, whatever the subject area.
  • Conversely, 42% of respondents (up 7 percentiles since 2016) are prepared to change their subject and will prioritise factors such as institutional ratings, employment prospects or location. If you have places available in the less popular subject areas, try some alternative campaign messages that lead with your institution’s other USPs – such as location marketing to a local audience, or employability messages – to see how they perform.
  • Popular subject areas in the UCAS cycle are also popular subject areas during Clearing. Expect biological sciences, psychology, business and law to perform well and make sure your Clearing campaigns and course listings are set up to attract prospective students to these popular subject areas.
  • If you have places on more niche programmes which align with these subject areas, make sure your course pages and call handlers are set-up to refer students to these other programmes. Results from the 2017 National Clearing Survey showed room for improvement in call handlers’ knowledge of career outcomes, course content, and the understanding of a prospective students’ needs. Make sure they’re armed with this information about some of your more niche subject areas to help prospective students see those programmes’ benefits and make informed decisions about the best programme for them.

If you haven’t got your hands on the 2017 National Clearing Survey yet, download your copy of the full report here to help inform your Clearing campaigns this summer. And if your institution would like to take part in the 2018 survey for free and receive the benefits of partnering with us, fill in the form below.

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Article by


Holly Cartlidge

Account Director