The 3 Cs: how student mindsets are changing as Clearing kicks off

Tuesday 18 July 2023, UCAS advice

by Dave Penney, Director of Marketing, UCAS

The 3 Cs: how student mindsets are changing as Clearing kicks off

There’s not much we talk about more often than student mindset, but there’s not much more important. Especially during the crucial decision making period of Clearing.
Dave Penney, Director of Marketing, UCAS

When you’re speaking to a market like this, there’s no homogeny. It’s impossible to boil them down into neat brackets or customer personas. But one of the few unifying factors that can transcend the vast differences between a young person’s history or experience is mindset. It’s not an exact science by any measure, but as an indicator of the sorts of things you should be taking into account during student recruitment, it can be a powerful way to align your messages to real life pain points – many of which change from one Clearing to the next.

Having spent time reviewing our latest findings on what this year’s offer holders are thinking and feeling, there are three standout changes that we should be talking about:


Confidence – it’s coming back.

Across the board and from every angle, student confidence is increasing.

Almost every single offer holder (97%) is now confident of getting a place at uni, with a huge number (89%) having already accepted an offer from their preferred uni – up 6% from last year. It’s full steam ahead, as fewer are thinking of delaying too. There’s less interest in deferring or taking a gap year, but more interest in pursuing a higher technical qualification than originally planned. Students are, by and large, happier and more confident this year.

And this isn't a confidence born from the security of knowing where they stand, it stretches back to all of the big steps that precede offer-making too. When we asked students about getting places based on predicted grades, more said they are expecting to meet or beat their grades. Fewer are worried about getting lower grades and missing out on their offers, too.

We can even see rising confidence in students shortly after making their applications. At that stage, 94% were committed to university, compared to 84% last year. 97% were confident about getting a place, compared to 95%. And 69% expected to meet the grade requirements for their firm choice uni, compared to 65% in 2022.

So where is all this conviction suddenly coming from?

Like many of today’s trends, I think its root cause is likely to be the pandemic – or rather the fading memory of it. Confidence wasn’t in many mindsets during COVID, especially not young people’s. They were some of the most affected when it came to daily life – many 16-18 year olds spent their whole GCSE experience under at least some restrictions. With life having slowly returned to normal, so have we seen the buoyant return of optimism, self-assurance, and confidence. 

Last year’s return to exams, too, will have been a huge help. Having got direct control over their own grades back, there’s a more accurate perception of what their outcomes might be. And whether their exams went well or not, at least they’re armed with the information to start considering their next steps. More control and awareness means more confidence.

For universities, it could mean one less pain point to combat in their recruitment campaigns. When your marketplace has a brighter outlook, you can go on braver offensives. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are still plenty of pain points to address, a cost of living crisis not least of all, and that sensitivity must remain part of your toolkit – but now might well be the time to dust off the creative, edgy, lighter, or more ambitious campaigns that got shelved.


Cost – it’s on the mind of most.

The cost of living is, of course, one of the big backdrops of this cycle. In the eyes of your potential applicants, it’s now the second most important thing that they want more information about (and only 1% behind course content.) Hearing from you about money is now more important to them than social life, graduate employment, and accommodation info.

Trade-offs are inevitable if students are still keen on enjoying the traditional university experience, which they very much are. It’s a case of doing this to achieve that, rather than making wholesale sacrifices to their long-held plans. When we asked them how they’re going to make it work, getting a part-time job was by far the most popular plan. Getting one whilst at uni came 1st, and even getting one before uni came 3rd. Other strategies included closer financial management (2nd), applying for financial support (4th), and getting help with money from family (5th).

Simply put, they’re not willing to inhibit their experience  by doing anything that would drastically alter it. For example, they generally don’t want to live at home, study part-time, defer, study remotely, or choose an altogether alternative education route. This is a committed group who are going to face the rising cost of living head on with, you guessed it, confidence.

But it’s not going to be easy and they’re going to need your help with it, something that almost half of them told us that they’re not getting enough of. 46% of offer holders say that they can’t recall receiving any cost of living information from universities directly. That’s the most immediate thing to remedy.

They’ve even told us exactly what they want from you:

A spreadsheet with the average student’s spending. What financial benefits you offer to students from low-income families. Last year’s students explaining how they coped.


Choice – it’s redefining the way Clearing is used.

Traditionally, albeit erroneously, the perception has been that Clearing is where you go when you don’t have much choice. But increasingly, students are taking control of the process and making it work harder for them. Clearing is now quickly becoming the go-to place where students can get their hands on huge helpings of choice – as the savviest among them learn how to use Clearing properly.

Rather than being satisfied with meeting the grade requirements of their offers, almost a quarter of students (22%) are now considering entering Clearing voluntarily if they achieve higher grades than expected. By their own choice, they turn their firm choice into a backup choice and see which alternative providers still have spaces and might now consider them based on their overachievement.

Because of this, 41% of offer holders now disagree that Clearing is only offered by ‘less prestigious’ universities – a changing sentiment that has increased by 4% on last year.

Much of this change comes from better education on what Clearing actually is. 82% are now confident that they understand its role and how it works, compared to only 65% last year. Clearing has always been about choice. As more students realise this, ignore the undeserved stigma, and use it willfully – we could see a snowball effect and a vastly different post-acceptance period for both students and providers.

It’s going to mean swings and roundabouts, as students become more mobile and selective than we’re used to. There may be more of them using Clearing overall, and there may be more high achievers in that growing pool. My advice for those universities worried about missing their targets, because this way of using Clearing may make their forecasts less reliable, is this: 

For years, the traditional markers of quality (like league rankings) have become less important in student decision-making. Young people are far more concerned with things like student reviews or pastoral support, not to mention needing more help with money this year. These are things you can directly and immediately improve, or you can at least make students more aware of your current provision. As one university loses applicants, another one gains them.

We’ll see what happens in September when it comes to exactly how many students actually end up taking advantage of this new technique, but even in last year’s Clearing we saw 37,000 students clicking ‘Decline My Place’. That’s almost double the amount of students who were automatically entered, based on not achieving their grades. It’ll be interesting to revisit that number after the summer holidays.