Information, advice and guidance

Moving beyond the insurance myth: supporting your students to choose the university that’s right for them

As the January 15 UCAS deadline has passed and universities across the country are busy processing offers, attention in schools and colleges shifts from ‘where shall I apply?’ to (hopefully) ‘which offers should I accept?’

It all used to be so straightforward. Students were encouraged to apply for courses with a range of entry requirements; from those they would achieve if they worked really hard, everything went well on the day of the exam, and predicted grades were accurate, to those that afforded for the possibility of lower than hoped for results. 

The first choice, ‘Firm Acceptance’ was the course with the highest grades, the second ‘Insurance Acceptance’ was the safety net, typically at least one grade lower than the other. Teachers encouraged their students to aim high but be prepared to go to their ‘second choice’. Job done.

And then everything changed. Unconditional offers appeared: In 2019 over 75,000 were made, with 25% of all applicants receiving at least one such offer (students in ‘disadvantaged’ areas remain 50% more likely to receive one).1 Unconditional offers (which typically have to be set as firm choices to make them unconditional) make the insurance choice redundant, with students being accepted onto the programme irrespective of their attained grades. Those two choices became one.

Even for those who received the traditional conditional offer, options have altered. In the past, students would have to wait for their results in August to discover where they would continue their education. There was an expectation that students would automatically go to their firm choice if they made their grades, and their insurance if they didn’t. Clearing was for those who’d missed both offers and took place after results were published.

Then in July 2019, UCAS launched self-release into clearing. This allowed students an alternative choice once they had their results, being able to release themselves into clearing rather than waiting for their chosen university to do so. Those two choices could be abandoned for the option of thousands in clearing.

In 2019, the number of people accepted through clearing rose by nearly 10% and exceeded 70,000.2  The profile of institutions entering clearing has shifted dramatically in recent years too, with 18 of the 24 most selective, Russell Group universities advertising 4,600 courses through clearing in 2019.  Clearing is now, rightly, seen as a legitimate route for high quality applicants to secure a place at a university they want to study on a course they love.

All of these factors, combined with the increasingly widespread use of (usually lower) contextual offers, mean it’s time to re-think our approach to the guidance we give to students as they make their choices this spring. So, what should the advice be? Well, in a landscape that’s ever changing, there’s real benefit in keeping things simple.

If there are two offers to choose, then the Firm Acceptance should be the one the student wants the most. The subject they feel passionate about, the university they want to live and study in. As long as there is a realistic chance that the grades will be attained, choose it. 

Students should not feel compelled to stick with the ‘highest grades = firm, lower grades = insurance’ mantra.  In an environment in which aspirational offers are being made, universities are often more flexible during results week, and applying through clearing can lead to a brilliant course at a brilliant university, students should have the confidence to choose what’s right for them, not make preferences based on grade profiles.

Of course, the same advice applies; students should visit the universities they’re holding offers from, find out about the academic and social experience, research the costs of each institution and go where they (not their teachers, parents, friends) want. Then make the decision that’s right for them. 

At a time of enormous choice, endless possibilities and myriad sources of advice, sometimes it’s best not to overcomplicate. There’ll be plenty of time for academic challenge when term starts in September 2020. Good luck!


  1. UCAS (2018) Unconditional Offers – An Update for 2019
  2. UCAS (2019) UCAS' 2019 End of Cycle Report reveals ‘unprecedented opportunity’ for anyone considering university


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