Interview: Alison Shaw, clearing volunteer

Alex Gervás interviews Alison Shaw, a clearing volunteer, on how the university has been affected by the A-Levels U-turn

Alex Gervas
6th October 2020
After the government's U-turn and the sudden changes in admissions, the clearing process has been dealing with numerous enquiries. I interviewed clearing volunteer, Alison Shaw, about how it has affected the University.

What is your position at the University?

My role is to make sure that the University continues to improve how it supports students from different backgrounds. At the University, we traditionally recruit students who have reached a high level of prior attainment. That means that the diversity of the student body has been drawn from a narrower range of population than at some universities. So, my job is to examine things like the curriculum, the way we teach, support, and assess students, to enable everyone to succeed on a level playing field.

What do you do as a clearing volunteer?

As a clearing volunteer, there is a lot of preparatory work to make sure that we are fully responsive to the incoming calls. That was particularly the case this year: because of all the changes that students were experiencing, there were higher volumes of calls at particular times. In principle, we were making sure that the callers were well-prepared to answer calls so students didn’t have to wait on the line for too long.

Some of those students, of course, were feeling stressed or anxious or had low confidence in talking to somebody in an academic environment. My job was to answer in a way that would put callers at ease, assuring them that I would go the extra mile to help answer their queries correctly or refer them to the right people.

How did the University deal with the government’s U-turn and the increase in eligible students?

It obviously had implications right across the University’s finances, timetabling and staffing levels. Even under normal circumstances, it could have had a significant bearing on the logistics of making the right facilities available. Now, we had to put social distancing requirements and blended learning planning on top of that. Given all these unexpected impacts, planning and forecasting was new and different territory for everyone. 

Partly out of moral, and partly contractual responsibility, we decided that we were going to honour the offers that we’d made through Clearing. First, we had confirmation for those who already secured their places. Then there was round one of Clearing. Because of the Ofqual process, a proportion of students hadn’t met the offer conditions. But, it all changed again and people who thought they hadn’t got in found out they had been accepted. In the end, the processes that the University had put in place and the careful monitoring of offer-making meant we could have had more students than we planned for, but our preparations paid off and recruitment in the end matched what students and the University were hoping for.

How did the removal of the cap in places affect the University?

It provided a real challenge to the University, and the system as well. One of the challenges of the system as a whole is the hierarchy of universities, which exists whether we like it or not. There was a national fear that recruiting universities would suffer because their numbers would drop, and students would rush to get into places at what are so-called ‘elite’ universities. But even if caps are lifted, there are still limitations in places. There are limitations, particularly this year, on space, placement and staffing because you can’t suddenly expand courses without planning ahead and recruiting more colleagues. I think there were natural limiting factors and ethical practices that were applied meant that over-recruiting to the detriment of other universities or the quality of our courses didn’t happen. The amount of effort and focus required from universities to deal with the grading fiasco alongside the lifting of the cap was enormous. I think it took a toll on the University in terms of effort and time and exhaustion for some people that have been working really hard all summer.

Of the students calling, what were their main concerns? 

I think the level of uncertainty was deeply stressful for a lot of students. The conversations I was having with them demonstrated that they needed sensitive, thoughtful support. It’s easy for people to assume that young people hate exams and school when the opposite is the case. They’ve been working from such a young age towards being able to prove what they could achieve as a result of their hard work over the years. To have that opportunity taken away from them, back in March, I think was disrespectful to students and teachers.

What I felt is that they were grateful to talk to somebody that reassured them that we believed in the quality of what they’ve done and in the potential that they had to get to a place at University. I think that there was still a feeling that this generation, and their achievements, were being put under question.

I hope I’ll cross paths with some of the students I was talking to who will be confident, happy, settled students at Newcastle University.

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