Clearing 2013: don't believe the hype about 'elite' universities
There are good universities in the Russell Group - but there are equally good options outside it
Last year, more students than ever secured a place at university through Clearing – and institutions are preparing to do battle for students with equal vigour in 2013. With 163 UK higher education institutions offering around 34,000 courses, you can be sure of finding the right course, says Fiona Waye, policy adviser at Universities UK.
"There are a huge range of opportunities – different institutions play to different strengths. Applicants need to take a broad look. There will be a course that suits."
While top-performing schools tend to push students towards Russell Group universities, there is a wealth of renowned courses at specialist colleges and new universities, says Rachel Wenstone, NUS vice-president, higher education. "Marine biology at Plymouth, for instance, or journalism at Leeds Met. People tend not to look beyond about a dozen places, but they should."
Universities range in size from 2,000 to 30,000 students and can be campus or city-based, vocational or research-led. Ancient collegiate universities – such as Oxford and Cambridge, most obviously – are world leaders in research and offer more traditional academic courses. They form part of the Russell Group, a 24-strong alliance of research-intensive universities that dominate the UK rankings.
"New" universities – which changed status from polytechnics in 1992 – may have a more local intake, offer more vocational courses and welcome mature and part-time students. But many are carving out niches in various fields of research and adding to their vocational focus. Many also have excellent links with employers.
Then there is the 1994 Group of universities, so called because they formed an alliance that year in the wake of higher education reforms. These tend to be small- or medium-sized, and mostly campus-based, and pride themselves on integrating research into degree programmes. Last year, they accepted around 2,000 students through Clearing.
Other institutions, such as the University of Surrey – which has soared in the rankings in recent years – don't fit any category, but do offer a traditional campus feel – "think students relaxing around the lake", says Nic Pike, head of admissions. "There is a red mist of panic around Clearing and it's naive to think students don't go by league tables," he says. But he urges applicants to delve more into teaching style, course and employment statistics.
Smaller, specialist colleges that focus on one discipline or vocation – such as agriculture, nursing or performing arts – can offer a more intimate and nurturing experience, and they aren't dwarfed by other faculties within a larger institution. "There are excellent courses in Clearing and we pick up excellent students," says Sarah Simms, head of admissions at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey, which has 6,000 students and took 148 through Clearing last year. "Clearing almost levels the playing field – and it's a nonsense to see it as 'second-best'."
Beyond traditional full-time study, students could consider studying vocational sandwich courses, which include valuable internships, most commonly within science, technology engineering and computing. Only 16% of students currently consider part-time study, but it's an option that allows applicants to sidestep Clearing – you can apply directly to the institution and find course details on ucas.ac.uk. "Employers value a graduate who shows he or she can balance the disciplines of work and study," says Waye.
If your grades aren't up to scratch, but your heart is set on a subject, consider a foundation degree that leads into a bachelors, although this does require an extra year of funding. Many further education colleges also offer validated higher education courses.
Another route into higher education is via an apprenticeship, as offered by institutions such as the University of Derby. City & Guilds also provides and awards vocational training.
Then there is the Open University, which scores highly on student satisfaction and doesn't set entry requirements – although, in reality, few school leavers opt for this.
"The diversity of the UK's university system doesn't always come across to young people," says Waye. "It would be a loss to the sector – and UK plc – if someone decided, if they couldn't get into a top university, they wouldn't go at all."
Michael Russ accepted a place through Clearing to study sociology at Birmingham City University after he failed to get the grades he needed to do radiography there
"My grades weren't good, so that ruled out other radiography courses. I did briefly consider retakes, but there was a lot of peer pressure and expectation. Everyone around me was going to uni and I didn't want to be left behind.
"It was a frantic day. At the time, it was important for me to remain at Birmingham: I lived nearby and wasn't ready to be too far from friends and family.
"I took sociology – I've enjoyed it immensely; I'm seriously interested in the subject. It's really changed the direction of my life. At the start, it felt slightly second-best, but after half a year I really woke up to it.
"I'm starting a master's in political and social theory in September. One of the main attractions here is the quality of the teaching – the lecturers really know how to inspire students."
David Alcorn became president of the students' union of Leeds Metropolitan University after completing his history degree
"There are a lot of vocational aspects to academic life here – we have a vast array of industry contacts and students get excellent placements at home and abroad. Many lecturers have worked in industry, often with unparalleled knowledge in their field. As a result, a lot of local businesses seek our students as they know they're as good as any redbrick graduate, if not more experienced.
"I came here to study events management – as the university is a UK leader in this field – then switched to history after two years. Many history projects have involved delving into local community history, or researching for museums.
"Leeds Met feels very grounded and laid back, and very sociable. Our union links up with Leeds University union to collaborate on community projects. Our Headingley campus has beautiful, Georgian redbrick buildings, with world-class sports facilities – Jessica Ennis trains here, as did China's Olympic team – and our city campus has modern buildings.
"I think Leeds Met, despite being such a large university, is amazingly good at reaching out and getting the best from students – there's a lot of pastoral care and employability advice. I'd say don't be too quick to discard the post-1992 universities: they offer nationally recognised specialist courses."