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A new approach to university clearing

Students in universities across the UK have faced unprecedented disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but attention will inevitably turn to the next year’s intake as we turn the corner into 2021.

Coronavirus is expected to cost universities somewhere in the region of £2.6 billion in lost revenues due to a significant loss of international and domestic enrolments. This will make competition among establishments all the more fierce.

In the summer of 2020, universities faced their busiest ever period of clearing, with a record number of pupils taking up degree places, bolstered by school leavers who had their gap year plans disrupted by the pandemic.

The whole process of clearing has been changing in recent years. Where once it was a mad scramble played out over a fortnight around A-level results day, it is now taking place earlier and earlier. Interestingly, the student mindset has changed. Clearing is no longer ‘last chance saloon’ but simply one extra step that must be taken.

In times of peak demand, many students would spend exasperated hours on the phone waiting to speak to someone, knowing that the next three or more years of their life would hinge on the outcome.

While the tables haven’t turned completely, Covid-19 is expected to have a significant impact on the clearing process, accelerating a new, student-centric way of operating. We saw, for instance, ‘clearing plus’, a new online service from UCAS that aimed to assist students in finding university places via an algorithm.

This kind of digital innovation will only be a good thing for universities, for whom clearing has proved an equally frustrating experience. However, the simple issue of pupil engagement is one that still needs fixing.

The contact centre and telephony systems traditionally deployed by universities simply aren’t prepared for the temporary surge in enquiries between August and September. They are rigid and inflexible, offering no opportunity to scale to meet demand.

Further, the investment in time and money training non-technical users, such as academic staff, can often be lost when students decide to go with another course at a different location as a direct result of a poor experience during clearing. Even when a student is on the line, a tangled web of platforms between departments, schools and faculties make it a difficult task to transfer calls and maintain the original context of the student’s call.

This cannot continue. Not only are the financial costs too much to bear, but the experience young people expect when engaging with institutions has simply moved beyond ‘waiting on a call’.

Simply put, with competition higher than ever, the clearing process could be the difference between a good year and a bad one. As an absolute minimum, educational establishments must put in place an omnichannel strategy that enables students to navigate the system in a way that suits them.

Having understood the potentially significant investment in time, money and resources to manage the clearing process, the benefits of a proper omnichannel strategy are more readily understood.

Modern, cloud-based systems enable agents to work from anywhere, removing traditional barriers to gathering the right team of people to handle enquiries. They offer a single, connected view of the pupil and their requirements, integrating with UC solutions such as Microsoft Teams or Horizon, so that calls can be effortlessly passed across departments, which increases the speed of resolution for each pupil and maximises productivity. Perhaps most importantly of all, each department will be subject to the same reporting mechanisms and SLAs to ensure consistency and good service across the journey.

By layering on messaging and engagement solutions such as Chatbots or WhatsApp, universities will be engaging with potential pupils on more familiar ground. They will also be increasing self-service and call deflection, reducing the cost to serve , as well as call costs and licence costs– all of which are key metrics in customer-facing environments.

Delivering all these interactions across different channels ina single conversation enables agents to understand and respond easily to a potential student’s enquiry, making the process a lot quicker and a better experience.

Take, for instance, a student being able to engage with a Chatbot to determine whether they have met the desired grades to get on the course of their choosing. That means one less student in a queue, talking to scattered staff across different departments.

It is in triage, however, where the solution really comes into its own. It prioritises high value or complex cases and transfers them to the most appropriate person to deal with their enquiry – whether that involves languages, accessibility or departmental requirements. More straightforward enquiries that can be best served through other channels should be given the option to do so rather than waiting in a queue.

So, while universities will be facing difficult decisions due to lost revenue brought about by the pandemic, they cannot expect to do things ‘the same old way’ and expect to recoup those losses.

The Coronavirus pandemic has accelerated digital interaction – and universities are not immune to that. With clearing now a more long-term, defined strategy for students, universities must arm themselves with the right systems and processes as a point of competitive differentiation, while recognising the benefits in cost reduction not just during clearing but supporting students services throughout the year.