Monday, 30 July 2012

Gearing up for Clearing

We are in the final stages, now of preparing for Clearing. My direct role in this process is a fairly limited one - I had a discussion yesterday about what budget code we should assign to the bottled water that keeps the Clearing team hydrated, but actually I don't even sign off the purchase order at the end of the day. Making Clearing happen is a major undertaking: the first morning puts a strain on out telephone and IT systems that nothing else in the year comes close to matching. This post isn't mainly about the mechanics of Clearing, though, because this is a planning blog. It is mostly about more of a macro-level issue: will we all get enough students to meet our budgets whilst staying below our student number control limits? The answer, of course, is no: but not in a very interesting way.

The basic shape of the picture has been clear since January. There has been a sharp fall in mature applicants, but overall the number of applicants is higher than the number of places available, and not far out of line with numbers in 2010. There is no reason to think that the sector is going to run out of applicants before every university is full. Martin Hall has a more recent discussion here. He emphasises the point that we can't see patterns or trends in most of the data:

Despite claims to the contrary, there is no obvious correlation with fee levels at the level of the individual university.  For example, London Metropolitan, which has made a point of charging the lowest fees among English universities, has 15.5% fewer applicants.  The University of Central Lancashire, which had adopted the opposite strategy and announced fees of £9 000 for all its programmes, is 6% higher than London Met.  There is no easy relationship with reputational category. The University of Liverpool, a Russell Group university, reports applications down by 11%.  Lancaster University, which has been closely associated with Liverpool over the past year or more, sees its applications rise by 5% over the previous year, which is 15% higher than the average for England. Oxford is down by just short of 1%, while Cambridge is up by 2%.  It would be trivial to suggest that this is due to the outcome of the Boat Race, but there’s no better explanation to hand.
And UCAS themselves have published an in-depth analysis here, which comes to the same conclusions.

In other words most of the year-on-year changes seem to be random statistical fluctuations - noise.

So why do I say that not all institutions will recruit enough students whilst remaining below their student number control limits? I can see a few potentially significant causes of confusion:
  • Insurance accepts (1). Many institutions have set their offer at AAB this year, even those who would not normally expect to recruit at that level. This means many students will be holding both a main and insurance offer at AAB - because all the offers they got were AAB. The institutions will admit many students who miss this AAB offer, but will do so where it makes sense for them, based on their other applicants. This may take a while, and result in some highly-qualified students finding themselves in Clearing whilst they wait to find out what their insurance institution will do. UCAS are sufficiently concerned about this that they wrote a circular to VCs on the issue last week. 
  • Insurance accepts (2). In my own institution our offer is not close to AAB. We normally assume that roughly none of our insurance accepts will actually come and study, but perhaps this year they will have fewer other options, and so will come to us after all. If they make that decision late in the cycle, we could find ourselves over-recruited.
  • Trading up. It is rare for students who get better than expected A-levels to trade up in UCAS, but perhaps under the AAB rules, institutions will be offering stronger inducements. This one is unlikely to have much impact on my institution.
  • Sticker shock. It bears repeating that at the £9,000 level, English HE is now the most expensive system anywhere in the world, far more expensive than the average American university, for instance. So far, this has had less impact on applicant decision-making than anyone could have predicted, but perhaps there will be a significant group of students who get cold feet at the last minute. We plan for a specific level of now-shows amongst our firmly-accepted unconditional offers (UFs) in UCAS, so if this level increases, we will find we have under-recruited.
  • Simple incompetence. In general, I don't believe that management in the HE sector is more clueless than elsewhere, but some management is clueless in every sector, and HE is no exception.
There is one thing, though, that won't make any difference this year: the private sector. The public sector of HE will admit very roughly 400,000 FTUG students (350,000 of whom will be subject to SNC or AAB+), the private sector maybe 10,000. It will take a few years of growth before the private sector is really making much difference.

If you look across my bullet points, I think you will agree that the first four can only have a marginal impact. Perhaps 90% of our firm accepts will turn up, rather than the 95% we planned on: this will be a pain, but hardly world-changing. Only my last point - incompetence - is capable of making a really major impact, and even then only when it reaches pretty astonishing levels. Most of us will land up within a very few percent of our student number targets, just as (for full time home undergraduates) we always do.

Back in February I identified the four horsemen of the coming AAB apocalypse, and showed that even under some pretty implausible assumptions about how badly they might do, apocalypse would overwhelm them rather slowly. Since then we have determined that the AAB boundary will come down next year to ABB. This is a small change: it will make little difference to the poshest institutions almost entirely above AAB, and little difference to the less prestigious who are almost entirely far below. But it will provide significant relief to those institutions worst affected because they are cut in half at the AAB level.

So on the one hand we see largely random year-on-year fluctuations, and on the other we see policy changing - albeit slowly. Both of these factors mean that pressure will likely fall on different institutions next year than it has this.

Somebody, somewhere will have a bad experience in Clearing because somebody, somewhere always does, but there is no reason to expect a pattern or trend. Those who do badly this year may do well next. Life staggers on much as before. Will we all get enough students to meet our budgets whilst staying below our student number control limits? The answer, of course, is no: but not in a very interesting way.

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