Clearing: no longer the last choice saloon

By Max du Bois

As featured in University Business by Max du Bois and Alice Yessouroun 

Clearing is on the rise. It’s no longer just for students who didn’t quite hit their predicted grades; the ones that might have had an off day in the exam room. The Unlucky, shall we call them?

Clearing now appeals across the board to the Adjusters, the U-turners and the Last-minute applicants:

The Unlucky: didn’t quite hit their predicted grades
The Adjusters: exceeded expectations
The U-turners: changed their minds
The Last-minute applicants: weren’t sure they would apply at all

But why is clearing on the rise? Throughout our research with A-level students, speaking to more than 100 across 40 focus groups over the past 12 months, we found that the pressure of increased fees makes students think twice about their choices. What’s traditionally been a panic is no longer an impulse-driven decision, as students look for a return on their investment and are more sceptical of sweeping claims and the league tables.

All students will assess the transactional value a university offers, but the more discerning among them (the Adjusters and the U-turners) will pay close attention to the transformational value on offer, honing in on the experience and how it will change their lives for the better.

Higher education has become a ‘buyer’s market’, with more choice, giving students the confidence to apply later and negotiate their best option within the clearing scrum.

Looking at this year’s clearing campaigns, it quickly became apparent there are three approaches in use across the sector.

1. The spray and pray approach

This is categorised by generic claims that could apply to anyone, disruptive pop-up windows and shouty banner ads, which push for a panic decision amidst the chaos of clearing.

The taglines play on urgency: ‘CALL US NOW’ or ‘BOOK YOUR PLACE’, giving little indication of the value returned from the significant investment in the fees.

The spray and pray approach, can work well, especially with the Unlucky. It’s expensive, though, and requires a larger investment into paid media versus brand, messaging and creative. A risky approach in such a fiercely competitive market where brand can tell the story beyond the league tables.

2. Changing perceptions

Some universities have been tapping into the changing of perceptions and new segments of students applying through clearing.

Good examples of a tactical, yet not so strategic, approach include the University of Kingston who positions clearing as opening up possibilities: ‘Clearly good for me’. Or the University of Staffordshire who suggests clearing is a time to uncover hidden talents: ‘Clear your mind. See your potential’; ‘we will help you find your place in higher education’.

These campaigns are a major step up from the spray and pray approach, but still have an FMCG feel: focusing principally on tactical feel-good messages, instead of the university journey and what it is that makes their brand distinctive. From the rise of unconditional offers to the sharp increase in students receiving a First or 2:1, these universities risk turning their degrees into discounted and undistinguishable commodities in the eyes of their prospective audiences.

3. It’s all about the brand

The universities that stretch ahead of the competition and stand out are the ones who place brand at the heart of everything they say.

By reinforcing brand across clearing they put themselves in a position to attract the best available candidates, the discerning Adjusters, U-turners or Last-minute applicants.

The University of Brighton’s campaign ‘Stay curious and explore’ is directly derived from their brand: ‘For the curious’. It positions clearing as a call to adventure, rather than a call for help! Appealing to a prospective students who doesn’t want to be treated like an unlucky underachiever, it recognises this is an important life decision and not an impulse purchase.

It captures the imagination and taps into what we found to be the two core needs of students. The transactional value of university: the learning aspect, acquiring knowledge and developing thinking, as well as the transformational aspects: discovering oneself, individual growth, and the excitement of starting a new chapter.

The messages talk to both the panicked and the discerning student – those who are willing to go their own way, to be true to themselves. The messages are authentic and have a deeper impact as they are derived from the core brand positioning which would have been meticulously tested in research with the very same audiences.

Unsurprisingly, the University of Brighton has achieved year on year income growth of 3.8%.

Against a background blur of clearing ads, is an opportunity for universities to cut through the noise, create lasting impressions beyond the click bait and establish their brands as an exciting option, not a last resort.

Clearing should be about more than just a ‘good deal’, or ‘positive twist’. A strong brand will act as the basis, allowing universities to create campaigns with punch, presence and momentum, consistent with, and not detracting from, the core offer.