Clearing: Is it fair for Scottish students?

Exams Image copyright PA
Image caption Some Scottish youngsters rely on clearing if they fail to get the results they need

Every year the exam results bring disappointment as well as joy.

Some youngsters fail to achieve the grades they need to get into university.

Relatively few places are available to Scots through the clearing system which is designed to allocate "spare" places.

Yet a week or so later, they may feel aggrieved to find places are available to applicants from other parts of the UK.

So what's going on?

The clearing system is a complex issue. It is far more subtle than a headline claiming a Scot is losing out to someone from England, Wales or Northern Ireland. It is the price of free tuition at Scottish university - a price the policy's supporters would say was worth paying.

To put this in context though, the number of places at Scottish universities available to Scots is at an historic high. By this week the number of Scottish applicants accepted to Scottish institutions had reached 30,400 - 4% up on this time last year.

Image copyright iStock
Image caption Universities deny Scottish students are missing out

However, this may be little consolation to those who have lost out on the course they actually wanted to do.

Essentially there are now three groups of students at Scottish universities.

  • Scottish students and students from other EU countries who want to do their whole degree in Scotland. They receive free tuition. The Scottish Funding Council pays for the places, the overwhelming bulk of which go to Scots. There is a fixed upper limit on the number of Scottish and EU students who can be admitted. The overwhelming majority of those places are filled once conditional offers are met when the exam results come out. The small number which are available through the clearing system tend to be on less popular courses.
  • Students from other parts of the UK who have been charged tuition fees of up to £9000 a year. Universities can take in as many of them as they like and often places are available in clearing. Market forces, essentially, dictate just how many students universities will take in. However universities would strongly contend that they only take in people who actually make the grade for that course - they do not simply want seats filled in lecture theatres to make money.
  • Students from outside the EU who pay uncapped fees. Again universities are at liberty to take in as many as they feel they can.

This two tier system for Scottish and other UK students is the result of free tuition in Scotland.

But universities strongly contend that comparing students in the different categories is like comparing apples with pears.

They deny claims Scots are losing out to fee-paying students from elsewhere and say this shows a misunderstanding of the issue.

So is there a way round this?

Realistically the only way to end the distinction would be if tuition fees were re-introduced in Scotland or if free tuition was brought back in other parts of the UK.

The former would mean Scottish universities would be free to take in as many Scots as they wanted. The latter could end the distinction in the clearing system.

Either would probably mean that there was no hard and fast distinction between Scottish applicants and prospective students from other parts of Britain.

Universities Scotland is calling for discussions with the government over the total number of places available to Scots.

It would like to see the overall number grow to ensure that more people from disadvantaged areas can get a place without making it harder for others. But this is a distinct issue.

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