Clearing 2021: subdued?

It depends where you look, but the week after results has been unusually quiet.

The day seven reference point in UCAS’ daily clearing data contains all the recruitment activity in the first week after results. Just enough time for the for the day-of-week effects to wash through, but before the revised grades in 2020 start to seriously distort the Clearing figures. It is the best early reference point to draw out the shape of Clearing this year.

Activity in the first week of Clearing

Figure 1 Total placed main scheme applicants by when placed

The number of ‘main scheme’ (that is standard June deadline) applicants have been growing since results day and at day 7 sits at 477,000.

Figure 2 Net movement in main scheme placed by route type and day

As usual, increases in those placed through the Clearing routes have been important to this increase.

Figure 3 Net movement in main scheme Clearing placed by day and cycle

But these daily increases in those placed through Clearing are less that we would normally see, never going higher than 9,000 whereas some years have 14,000. 2021 has generally only been ahead when a weekday has been compared to a weekend in previous years. The most recent weekday-to-weekday comparison still shows activity subdued compared to recent cycles.

Figure 4 Net movement in placed between results and day 7

Between results day and day 7 some 25,400 main scheme applicants have been placed through Clearing, with a further 3,570 late applicants through Direct to Clearing (just under 29,000 in total). These are the lowest numbers seen in the past decade.


Clearing in 2020 was heavily disrupted at this point. Much of the period since A level results had seen temporary number controls for many universities. And although it had been announced that both SQA and JCQ grades would be changed, these data were not yet operationally available for universities to confirm decisions. The process for getting students back to their ‘firm’ choice with these higher grades had not yet got underway (it starts to show up over the next week as elevated ‘Clearing’ figures). As a result, the system was effectively frozen as universities waited to see what they needed to do.


It is a measure of how low Clearing activity is in 2021 that it has fallen behind even that low benchmark.

Figure 5 Proportion of main scheme applicants placed through Clearing

With the number of applicants generally up this year (apart from EU) these low numbers translate to falls in the proportion of applicants that use Clearing to get a place. This proportion is down for main scheme applicants from most domiciles (except Northern Ireland) and sitting at the lowest levels for a decade.


The 2020 Clearing numbers will increase from this point, as the system got moving again and it was used as a route back to ‘firm’ choices, and will likely make 2021 look more exceptional as a result.  

Direct to Clearing

Late applicants in Direct to Clearing are also very substantially down on previous years. These data are always hard to read as to what they mean.


Unlike the ‘standard’ June deadline applicants you would typically only apply through Direct to Clearing if you already had a place agreed. So instead of being a pure measure of demand, it is a mixture of demand and supply. Declines in these applicants can be driven by either.

Figure 6 Direct to Clearing late applicants and placed applicants

Expressing the placed Direct to Clearing applicants as a proportion of  June deadline applicants puts them in the context of level of applicant demand in the main scheme.  This proportion has fallen across all domiciles and is generally at levels last seen several years ago. Given the general growth in the use of this late route in recent years (including 2020) that represents a material change.

Figure 7 Direct to Clearing Placed expressed as a proportion of June deadline applicants

Differences in activity

Overall Clearing period activity in 2021 is lower than normal levels, but there are notable differences within that.


For UK 18 year olds, who got their ‘first choice’ in record numbers on results day, the fall in Clearing activity from the last ‘normal’ year in 2019 has been particularly dramatic.

Figure 8 Placed English 18 year olds at day 7, indexed to 2019

Taking just English 18 year olds (to avoid complications with the move of SQA results day), the placed numbers through Clearing are at less than 70% of the numbers in 2019 (despite 2019 having fewer applicants).


The number placed at their ‘first choice’ firm is 25% higher than 2019, a big swing away from clearing to meeting conditional offers as the means of getting a university place for young people. The difficulty that universities have had in adapting their offer-making to the unprecedented moves in awarded grades in 2020 and 2021 is the main factor here.

Figure 9 Net moves between results and day 7 (English 20+ year olds)

But if we look outside of these 18-year-old cohorts that have been most affected by the higher grades the picture changes.


Numbers placed through main scheme Clearing between results and day 7 for those aged 20 and over from England are lower than normal, but not to the same degree as for 18 year olds.


Since results day 1,760 of these older applicants have been placed through Clearing. In 2019 1,960 were. There are fewer placed through the Direct to Clearing route, around 1,500 – over 2,000 would be more typical. The increase in those being placed through firm in this period is mainly accounted for by SQA results being later relative to A levels than usual.

Figure 10 Movement in placed UK applicants between results day and day 7 by university type

We cannot isolate Clearing movements for every dimension in the data, but we can look at the wider post-results recruitment as clearing period activity (not just through clearing). This shows more patterns, importantly by type of provider.


The number of UK students placed between results day and day 7 (through any route) is just under 42,000, around 10,000-15,000 below what has been typical in recent years. Higher tariff providers (those with the highest entry grades on average) have recruited only half their typical increase in UK students during this period, 6,650 compared to 12,000-13,000 in the first week of Clearing in recent cycles. But lower tariff providers had recruited almost 20,000 additional students by day 7 . Fairly close to the 21,000-23,000 in recent cycles.

Figure 11 Placed UK applicants by university type at day 7, indexed to 2019

Looking at total recruitment of UK students (indexed to the ‘normal’ 2019 cycle), medium and lower tariff providers at day 7 are at around the same place they wwere in 2019.


This suggests that teaching capacity, and by implication the availability of Clearing places, at these providers should generally be close to normal. This will not be the case at higher tariff providers who have seen large increases in UK intakes since 2019 (up over 20% against the same point in 2019). 

Figure 12 Movement in placed UK applicants between results day and day 7 by age group

The patterns in post-results activity by type of provider are echoed in those for UK students by age. The numbers placed since results for 18 and 19 year olds are materially lower at day 7 than seen in the past decade (even compared to last years ‘frozen’ clearing). But the numbers for those aged 20 and above are at fairly typical levels. 

What does a quiet Clearing mean?

These day 7 data provide a rare chance to assess how Clearing is going this year. It is clear that, overall, Clearing activity is down, sometimes at levels not seen for a decade. 


It is difficult to distinguish between supply and demand factors in changes in the Clearing numbers. The higher grades driven surge in ‘first choice’ numbers on results day did do two things. It gave higher tariff providers a capacity problem, cutting off their supply of Clearing places. And it saw a greater proportion of 18 year olds get into their first choice, particularly higher tariff, at results, diminishing the share needing to think about Clearing as a route. This type of younger, higher tariff Clearing activity is weighted into the first week, is substantially down, and is a major reason why Clearing overall is subdued.


Outside of these higher tariff providers, overall recruitment totals are not showing exceptional increases over 2019. Lower tariff and Medium tariff providers at day seven have around the UK recruitment totals they had at this point in 2019. Although there will be specific circumstances at individual universities, the case for a widespread shortage of teaching capacity, and a resulting shortage of Clearing places outside of higher tariff providers is weaker.

Figure 13 Unplaced applicants at day 7

The number of  unplaced applicants at day 7, the pool for main scheme clearing demand are generally at or above 2019 levels, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of main scheme applicants. The proportion already with a place is also at similar levels to 2019. Neither of these statistics point to demand in terms of the size of the pool of potential Clearing entrants being a lot lower than normal. 

But it may be that this pool has shifted towards groups with lower levels of demand for Clearing. For instance, perhaps a third of the increase in UK unplaced might be older nursing applicants who may not be ready to change geography or subject to find a place. The Direct to Clearing numbers remain as difficult to read as ever as to whether they are signalling a change in provider supply or new applicant demand.

Some Clearing periods are short and energetic, others can make steady progress over a longer period. This year is not the former, but could still be the latter. However, if the current lower levels of activity in clearing persist, it is likely that final recruitment totals for UK students will be much closer to what was seen in 2020 rather than reflecting the large increases recorded on results day.