Clearing 2017 and what we can learn for Clearing 2018

The world never stands still, and this was undoubtedly true for the Higher Education Industry in 2017. There were several …

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Alexis Pratsides


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The world never stands still, and this was undoubtedly true for the Higher Education Industry in 2017.

There were several new issues to contend with compared to the previous years. To name a few: Brexit, the removal of bursaries for NHS funded courses, tuition fees, changes to the interest rates for student loans and fewer 18-year-olds to enter the 2017 cohort.

Last year, Clearing became a beast. The competition, already proving challenging for the reasons listed above, distilled into a single day with all of their ferocity of a Black Friday rush.

So I have looked into some interesting data trends from Clearing 2017, hopefully to help you with Clearing 2018.

Year-on-year search trends

What is perhaps most surprising, right off the bat, is that there were fewer Clearing related searches in 2017 compared to the previous year.  The graph above is the number of Clearing searches in August in the last four years.

We can see there were almost 60,000 fewer Clearing related searches in 2017 compared to 2016.  And 2017 had even less than 2015.

Have we already seen the high watermark for Clearing?

I’d say no, and that actually Clearing is still massively important and if anything will continue to increase in importance.

What I think the above graph shows is the distillation of several issues that universities had to contend with last year: fewer 18-year-olds, a massive reduction in interest for the NHS funded programmes and a growing worry about student debt and loans.

Google search trends: Clearing

Although the total numbers of searches may have decreased year-on-year, relatively speaking 2017 had the highest peak for Clearing searches over the last five years – and by quite some way.

So, this suggests, as I mentioned earlier, that actually Clearing is increasingly important.

The challenges for universities is how to recruit in an ever increasingly competitive market that is shrinking.

With Clearing over the last couple of years, we have seen more and more universities heavily invest during this period, but this can be an extremely stressful and risky strategy.

Universities may have been able to reasonably rely on Clearing to recruit good numbers for their courses, but the increase in competition means higher and higher ranked universities also offering places through Clearing.

As such, lower ranked universities may struggle more during Clearing, despite them arguably having more experience for recruiting through this process.

In short, universities are having to try and shout louder in a crowded room for an increasingly small piece of the pie.

When do students start searching for Clearing?


In recent years, much has been made about the legitimacy of Clearing. Gone are the days of Clearing being the down-trodden, second-rate and embarrassing route to Higher Education.

Increasingly we have seen more and more university places being made through Clearing which I think is a positive thing.

As such, Clearing has started to transition away from a one-day splash in the pan.

In the graph above we can see how searches for Clearing map out across an Academic year.  In 2013-2014, there is a small increase in June, before the August spike as expected.

However in the three years since, we can start to see an increase in as early as May.  We can still see a bit of a bump in June, before a lull in July and then a massive increase in August.

What does this mean for student recruitment teams?

Definitely start planning your activity and communication to start to hit during the summer.  Although students may be focused on their exams in this period, they may also start to think about alternatives to their choices. Whether they fear they’re going to do worse than expected, or hoping that they’ve done better. Starting the conversation with potential students earlier could be a great way for you to avoid the melee of Clearing Day itself.

Why not proactively market to potential students to try and get them onside before the mad rush of Clearing?

Mobile growth


There is one trend that is consistent year-on-year and is not showing any signs of slowing.  Mobile search percentage has grown from just under 25% to over 40% and it won’t be long before they reach over 50% of total searches for Clearing related terms.

From 2016 to 2017, in percentage growth terms there has been a 13% increase in mobile search percentage – this is inspite of the decrease in overall searches.

Indeed, on Clearing Day itself it wouldn’t be too surprising that the majority of searches are carried out on a mobile device. Make sure you are mobile ready.

Other topics?

Student debt


Student debt and the rising tuition fees have dominated political discourse for a while. In part, Labour’s pledge to abolish student loans brought this to the forefront even more.

However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that potential students are searching for this – the vast debt that students will leave Higher Education with underlines the value of programmes and degrees.

“Is it worth it?” “Should I go to university?”


We can see that there was a huge amount of interest for tuition fees in the months prior to Clearing last year – in part because of Labour’s pledges bringing it to the forefront but expect student fees to play a large role in future politics.



Additionally, we can see searches for apprenticeships up considerably from 2011 onwards – the first year that student tuition fees were put up from the previous £3,000 entry mark.

In 2017 and in 2016 we can see a decrease – perhaps reflecting that the watermark for them was reached in 2015.  However, this may reflect the decrease in 18-year-olds and potentially the decrease in those taking BTEC qualifications.

Indeed, in 2017 if anything there looks as though there may have been a small increase compared to 2016 for apprenticeship searches.

Overall, this underlines the multi-factored challenges that universities face now and 2017 saw many issues colliding together.


Since the January UCAS deadline all those months ago we knew that one subject area in particular was going to struggle – nursing.

Due to the Government’s decision to remove the bursaries for the NHS funded courses, we had already seen decreases in applications by about 20% and older students in particular also down massively – there is a significant overlap between nursing courses and mature students.

In 2017 we saw that there wasa 26% decrease in searches for nursing courses during Clearing. Whilst not necessarily a shock, it was definitely a surprise and will make for difficult reading for nursing colleges.

Indeed, 2017 saw the lowest search volumes that we can provide data for – even down on 2014.


So, with that in mind, what do you think will happen in August? We know already that this year has been a struggle for applications for the January UCAS deadline so the chances are this will carry over into Clearing.

If you’d like to have a chat about Clearing in 2018, either before or afterwards, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I can be reached at 020 3597 3777 or via email.

Colin is Head of Strategy at MintTwist and is well known in the Higher Education circles as an expert in SEO (on-page and off-page), content creation, blogging, social, and also working with our London PPC agency department.

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Alexis Pratsides

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