15 Aug '13

News A-level results: tension, tears and drama on the clearing phone lines

Staff taking calls at the University of the West of England expect to have spoken to 4,000 people by end of the day

The clearing phone lines at the University of the West of England in Bristol opened at 7am sharp. Within 10 minutes 50 calls had been taken. By the time the lunchtime sandwiches were being tucked into at desks (this is not a day for a leisurely break) more than 1,200 young people looking for a university place had called in. Staff here expect to have spoken to 4,000 people searching for a course by the end of the day.

Jo Midgley, director of student and partnership services at UWE Bristol, was pleased. "It's a lot busier than it was last year. We've so far made 25% more offers than 2012. It's a good day so far."

Midgley said clearing was an exciting and emotional time for would-be students and staff. "You are dealing with some people who have done better than they thought they would and are very positive. But you're also hearing from many young people who haven't got the marks they were hoping for so you have to make sure you are supportive to them and try to help them."

But it is not just a tense day for the callers. It is tough one for university leaders, admissions staff and tutors as they try to make sure they fill their courses.

Last year some leading universities were left with unfilled places after the scramble caused by new rules allowing unlimited recruitment of students gaining at least two A grades and a B. This year the bar on uncapped recruitment has been lowered to include students earning an A and two B grades, meaning a larger number of students able to seek offers from more competitive courses.

UWE did not meet its government target of 4,300 students last year, falling 400 short – in line with many universities who were also hit by uncertainty over fees.

No wonder that at UWE the 50 staff who handle the clearing process are carefully briefed to be welcoming, helpful and professional. "It's a competitive world," said Midgley. "We have to make sure we're as attractive as possible."

At the start of Thursday there were 500 places up for grabs at UWE Bristol, including in course such as business, law, creative industries, health science, radiotherapy, learning disabilities and mental health nursing.

The signs before A-level results day were good for the university.

Applications were up 13% this year and the clearing section of the university's website has been receiving 1,000 hits a day – 250% up on last year.

But getting clearing day right is a big deal for the university. The call-handlers, made up of admissions experts and staff seconded on to the team from other departments, take calls in two open-plan offices and a classroom. Another team deals with email inquiries in a much quieter upstairs room.

There is huge analysis in the buildup to make sure they set the required grades at the correct level. What they do not do is reduce the standards they expect as the day wears on to try to secure more students. "That would do a disservice to them and us," said Midgley. "It would mean that we may have students who would struggle and might well drop out and it could affect the quality of our courses."

There was a bit of mid-morning drama when a server went down, stopping the flow of calls dead in its tracks. "We did wonder why suddenly nobody was calling. But that quickly got sorted out," said Midgley.

Within minutes Laura Payne, one of the call handlers, has already had a would-be student "nearly in tears". This was for a good reason, happily.

His grades were good enough to get him a place on a foundation science course. "He just kept saying: 'Thank you, thank you' over and over again. It's great to hear that sort of joy."

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