It's a tradition as venerable as Pimm’s and as British as strawberries and cream. From mid-August onwards, countless students and virtually all the UK’s universities and colleges find themselves on a frantic merry-go-round that's part-courtship dance, part-crush for the Tube: Clearing.

What is Clearing?

In the UK, students normally apply for places on undergraduate degree courses during their A Levels, through a centralised body known as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Through UCAS, students submit applications to up to six universities/courses, and in turn receive conditional offers, which typically say something like “we’ll accept you onto this course if you receive grades ABB at A Level, including an A in English”.

Students can accept one “firm” (i.e. first choice) offer and one “insurance” offer, usually with lower entrance requirements. This is with a view to assuring them a place on a preferred course if they don't do as well as expected at A Level. These offers are contractually binding on both the student and the institution… sort of.

Clearing is the name given to what's essentially UCAS’s “back-up” process. It’s open from July for late applications by students who didn't apply during the main UCAS application process the previous autumn, and from A Level results day for students who didn't make the grade or who want/need to change courses for some other reason.

Clearing is a far less coordinated and centralised system than the main UCAS process. Students’ application trackers online simply read “You are in clearing” and the student must call the admissions service of their preferred university directly to arrange a place. Universities and colleges make admissions offers directly to the students, but the student’s final offer must be formally accepted via UCAS.

The reason the bulk of students enter Clearing is because of any of the following reasons:

- They didn't achieve the A Level results their first-choice course required
- They didn't make the grade for their insurance offer either
- Or they never really wanted to take up their insurance place in the first place
- Or perhaps they had their hearts so set on their first choice that they didn't take up an insurance offer at all

But students can also end up in Clearing if they've simply changed their minds entirely about where they want to go. Or even if they've decided to “trade up” because they did better in their A Levels than expected and now qualify for courses they'd previously considered out of reach.

It's not quite as simple as deciding you want a second bite of the cherry, however. If you've accepted an offer (including an insurance offer) you're now contractually bound to attend that institution and can't start 'shopping around' unless the university agrees to release you into Clearing. (In practice they rarely refuse, as institutions typically don't want to force students to attend. But you're not guaranteed to be able to change your mind on a whim and gorge yourself at the Clearing buffet.)

But isn't that all a bit… chaotic?

In a word, yes. Clearing is an anxious time for students and institutions alike – especially smaller, less prestigious ones. If you've spent the last six months reading about the city in which your firm choice is located, learning every detail about your chosen course and institution, and projecting towards living in that fancy first-refusal hall of residence in which you were guaranteed a place, it can be unsettling to say the least to be thrust back into the application process. Clearing applicants are inevitably second-class citizens to an extent, and last in the queue when it comes to things like residence places.

For universities and colleges, meanwhile, Clearing means that overall student numbers – and those for particular courses – won't be confirmed until days before the term is due to start. In rare circumstances, this may mean certain courses being definitively confirmed to run just days in advance. And that's not even covering the fact that Clearing becomes a more anxious time for institutions with every passing year. With competition for applicants tougher than ever, there are legitimate worries that some institutions might go under altogether – with the knock-on effect of yet more havoc for students already enrolled there!

There's an upside to all this for students, though. Clearing is unquestionably a buyer’s market this year, with more courses and institutions to choose from, and institutions potentially more prepared to offer “sweeteners” like residence places to the best students.

Are there better alternatives?

Clearing is a uniquely British phenomenon, arising as a result of our admissions and examinations models. Several European countries – including Germany – manage perfectly well without additional selection beyond having passed a standardised exam. No further gradation is made for most courses, with the result that students who meet the minimum requirements can enrol on any course, at any institution, they choose.

In countries that do practice academic selection similar to that in Britain, applications are generally less centralised (students apply directly to their institutions of choice) and the structure of examinations means students are unlikely to fail to meet any conditions stipulated in their offer. In the USA, for example, admission is generally by a combination of SAT (Scholastic Achievement Test) whose results are known by the time the application is made, and high school grades that are determined internally over a long period and far less reliant than A Levels on final exam marks.

The Clearing frenzy has evolved from a combination of our centralised admissions service and an exam format that preserves a sometimes heartbreaking degree of uncertainty almost right up to the start of degree studies. Maybe it would benefit all stakeholders to look again at how this system operates, and consider whether it can be made less fraught with anxiety for all concerned.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding your UCAS applications, the UCAS website has plenty of answers and information, as well as contact details if you want to speak to someone directly for advice.