Inside the Clearing room

This post was contributed by Jonah Duffin, Birkbeck’s Head of Recruitment and Marketing.

Last Thursday at 8:45am, I was in the Clearing room at Birkbeck with admissions staff from across Birkbeck’s five academic schools, preparing for what we knew would be our busiest Clearing period yet. It is one of my favourite times of the year; a concentrated microcosm of all of the reasons I continue to enjoy and feel passionate about working in higher education and especially at Birkbeck.

It is a unique time when the usually ponderous UCAS admissions process, that for the rest of the year can last weeks and months, is sped up to minutes and hours. To think that back in October, or even June last year, students were spending a huge amount of time discussing course options, attending open days up and down the country, canvassing friends and family for views and opinions and writing and rewriting their personal statements before carefully choosing five options and then, in the early spring, whittling it down to just two choices. Now, choices that can affect the rest of a person’s life are being made in the time it takes to make a phone call. With one study by the Student Room stating that one in five people meet the future love of their life on campus and many students staying on to live in the city in which they study, I don’t think that I am over stating the impact that phone call can have. It can be truly life changing.

Birkbeck prides itself on changing peoples’ lives. It’s not a slogan thought up whilst sitting on a bean bag in an exposed-brick studio in Shoreditch; it is what we hear time and time again from our students. Whether it is from people who previously thought university wasn’t for them and discovered Birkbeck later in life or younger, more traditional students who are increasingly realising the value that they can add to their degree by gaining professional experience during the day and building a career simultaneously with their degree, rather than leaving it until after they’ve finished studying. Added to this is the attractive proposition of graduating with a substantially smaller debt than students who take classes during the day and can only work limited hours at weekends or during holidays. Mature students appreciate the opportunity to attend a prestigious institution and gain a University of London degree without having to give up work or other daytime commitments. They all find that Birkbeck is a unique place that somehow manages to find a way of combining being a world-class research institution with the ability to allow people from all backgrounds to thrive and succeed.

The nice thing about Clearing at Birkbeck is that when you pick up the phone you never know who will be on the other end. It might be an 18 year old student who has just received A-level results, or it could be a 40 year old who has decided to take a degree at the same time as their  children head off to other universities, or a 30 year old who feels that getting a degree would give their career a boost.

I am sure that this is the reason that the atmosphere in the Clearing room at Birkbeck can be charged with a mixture of anticipation and nervous tension as the clock ticks down to 9am on that first Thursday of clearing and the phones begin to ring. As soon as the calls begin to come through and as each person gets that first call out of their system the nervous energy is replaced with a noisy industrious hum that continues throughout the day. And this year, as expected, once the lines were open the phones began ringing off the hook. By the end of the first day we had already made a third more offers than last year.

As always we received a real mixture of people calling. Sometimes they will have just missed out on the grades they needed for their first choice of university and when they pause to re-evaluate their options decide that Birkbeck’s evening teaching and the opportunity to work during the day is an attractive option. Others had done better than expected in their exams and decided that they wanted to trade-up to a Birkbeck course. The media has recently reported that at A-level students are increasingly opting for ‘hard’ subjects including science and maths and, in line with this, we have seen large numbers of very high-standard applications for our science programmes – particularly the BSc Biomedicine and the BSc Psychology.

Another reason I enjoy Clearing is that it tends to be one of the only times in the year when you can engage with administrative and academic staff from across the institution. This is Birkbeck’s fourth year in Clearing, since we first offered three-year programmes in 2010. Since then we have increased the number of three-year programmes on offer from three to 39, in response to the demand that we have seen for them. The Clearing room is now actually two rooms and there are over 80 people involved throughout the process. People who throughout the rest of the year may only interact within their School or department, for one week each year, are thrown together into a quite pressurised environment. People who may only know each other via email are all of a sudden sitting next to each other and every year this creates a really nice working atmosphere.

Finally, there is one last reason that I enjoy this time of the year so much – statistics. My mental arithmetic is pretty rusty to say the least. I often have to google sites such as ‘percentage calculator’ to double check my calculations and it still surprises me that I somehow scraped a grade C in GCSE maths, but I genuinely have a passion for statistics and in Clearing the whole institution suddenly seems to share that passion with me. The reason for this brief fling with the world of numbers is not unique to Birkbeck and the reason is that universities have a specific number of full-time undergraduate students that they are permitted to recruit. Broadly speaking if an institution recruits under their permitted number they will be fined and will obviously lose out on some fee income. Go over the number and they will also be fined. In the last two years a further complexity has been added to the system and universities are now permitted to take as many students scoring ABB in their A levels as they wish (last year it was AAB). Ensuring that Birkbeck hits that number on the nose involves looking at historic conversion rates and applying them to this year’s statistics – simple? Well, yes and no. There are so many internal and external factors that can affect the number of people who call Birkbeck in Clearing, the number who are offered a place in Clearing and the number of students who actually arrive in late September and early October. This leads to the creation of multiple pivot tables, endless discussions and graphs that end with dotted lines. Whilst we can model and predict where we think we will end up we can never be quite sure of the end result. Trying to make those predictions is, for me, all part of the joy of Clearing at Birkbeck.

There is an open evening for students who want to find out more about the opportunities that studying at Birkbeck offers on 5 September, in Bloomsbury.

In the meantime, it looks like Birkbeck’s three-year programmes are going to continue growing in popularity, and we look forward to welcoming our new students this October – how many there will be we will wait to find out.


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