Exam stress: Is 'clearing' fair to Scottish students?

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Tens of thousands of Scottish youngsters will find out on Tuesday whether they have secured a university place when they get their exam results.

Inevitably, many will be disappointed if they do not get the grades they need.

But for some the frustration may be made worse by the way the system for allocating "spare" university places now operates.

Many "clearing" places at Scottish universities are now only available to students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The annual problem is the result of the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland.

Although the number of young Scots starting university is at a near record level, there is a strict cap on the number of Scottish and EU students at each institution. But universities have more flexibility over how many fee-paying students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland to admit.

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The "clearing" system allocates places at universities which have not been filled after the exam results are released.

'Be well-informed'

Scottish applicants will be able to search for clearing vacancies on the university admissions service UCAS's website from 18:00 on Monday night and can start making choices from Tuesday morning. UCAS said applicants need to call universities and colleges beforehand to discuss courses that interest them, and to ensure places are available.

Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, said: "If you achieve the results you need for your chosen course, then you'll see your place has been confirmed when you log in. If you haven't been accepted at your firm or insurance choice, then please don't worry as there are a number of options available, including clearing.

"Clearing is open to anyone who is without a place on results day, for whatever reason. Once you identify a course that has places, think about why the course interests you and how your qualifications and experience match up.

"Be as well-informed as possible before you make that call to admissions staff and don't be afraid to ask questions. It's important that you feel happy with where you'll spend the next few years, and it's vital that you feel a real connection with the course content."

But the chances are there will be relatively few clearing vacancies for Scots on the courses which are hardest to get on to.

A Glasgow University spokesperson said: "We will go into clearing for a small number of vacancies in five specialised courses, mainly in our Dumfries Campus, and these positions will primarily be available to Scottish students.

"Until A-Level results are published we will not be in a position to say for sure whether we will go into rUK clearing [clearing for the rest of the UK] but in the event that we do it will be for a small number of places on a limited number of programmes."

Strathclyde University said it did not normally have places available to Scottish and EU undergraduate students through clearing but some places may still be available to students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland and from outside the EU.

Limited places

Universities say they understand the frustration felt by some students and their families but insist Scottish students are not losing out to those from other parts of the UK.

They insist the comparison of Scottish students with those from other parts of the UK is now rather like comparing apples and pears.

Scottish students do not pay tuition fees. Each university reaches a deal with the Scottish Funding Council on just how many "free" places should be available. The limit is rigid and once it is full, it is full.

These places are primarily for Scots, but because of European law they are also available to students from other EU countries.

Students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland are charged tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year. Universities can decide for themselves just how many they want to take, which allows for more flexibility.

'Record high'

The universities insist they are not simply using these students as "cash cows" and are not admitting students with poorer qualifications than Scots they have turned down.

The Scottish government provides free university places for Scottish residents and EU students from outside the UK - but does not pay for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a spokesperson explained.

"These places are not open to students resident in other parts of the UK or outside the EU. This means student places allocated to Scottish residents can never be taken by students resident in the rest of the UK.

"This year UCAS figures showed a record high in the number of Scottish domiciled students applying to our universities, with a rise of two per cent on last year and a 50 per cent increase in applications from 18 year-olds living in the most deprived areas of Scotland since 2006."

Details of the clearing places available to students from other parts of the UK will be known next week when the A-Level results are announced.

Inevitably, some Scots who did not get the place they wanted will feel frustrated.

But ultimately it is hard to see any way of ending the distinction unless at some point in the future tuition fees are abolished in the rest of the UK or re-introduced in Scotland.

Skills Development Scotland has a free exam results helpline which can offer advice to candidates whose exam results were poorer - or better - than expected.

The helpline will be open from 08:00 until 20:00 on 4 and 5 August, and from 09:00 until 17:00 daily until 12 August. The number to call is 0808 100 8000.

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