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How can Higher Ed thrive post COVID-19?

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The million dollar question. What does your institution need to do to ensure it’s prepared to survive the threat of Covid-19 and thrive into the future?

The first tactic is to start early

We know that the vast majority of Clearing marketing budgets are usually allocated to the August rush during and following results day and rightly so. But such a day won’t exist this year. Universities will give themselves an enormous advantage if pre-clearing content and campaigns are underway by the spring as the bulk of budgets can be applied to the period of time when students will discover their final grades.

Tied to this is brand awareness. Eighty-five percent of Clearing students have already heard of the university they enrol with and 77% have visited the website of the institution before Clearing. This would suggest that students have more trust in institutions that are already on their radar. That could be: that a billboard campaign on the London Underground, paid ads on social media, cost-per-click on Google, or perhaps a viral video on TikTok.

The earlier you start the more opportunity you have to gather data on your potential recruits and the more effectively you can use that data to help move them down the funnel towards enrolling at your institution.

Know your personas

Gone are the days when Clearing was just for students who’d messed up their A-level results. Clearing has become a preferential route into higher education for many students and it’s important that institutions recognise this and tailor their engagement strategies accordingly.

In the NetNatives 2019 National Clearing Survey it was revealed that just 41% of those placed via Clearing are the ‘traditional’ Clearing student that has typically under-achieved in their exams.

Thirty-three percent went direct to Clearing; 22% were considered ‘mind changers’ and are entering Clearing for reasons other than their grades, such as social or environmental factors. And 4% went into Clearing due to overachievement in order to try and secure a more prestigious university. 

That’s a whopping 59% of students that are considered non-traditional and each of these persona types has: varying needs, pain points, motivations and behavioural traits that affect how they choose an institution with which to continue their higher education.

If you know your customers well enough, you’ll know the kind of content they respond to. Whether they’re more likely to be male or female. Which courses they’re most likely to study. How to best meet their needs.

In addition you’ll know where they are. Which platforms they prefer. Which devices they use.

Let’s say, for example, you’re running a campaign to encourage direct-to-Clearing applicants to choose your institution. We know that they tend to be 60% female versus 38% male and 22.5 years old on average. We know that this type of applicant typically looks for institutions that are close to home. We know that this type of applicant favours Instagram, Youtube and Snapchat over other forms of social media.

Armed with this information – it becomes infinitely easier to create great content and disseminate it on the right platforms in order to engage the correct persona.

Track, measure and optimise

In order to continually prove and improve the value of any Clearing-related activity, it’s essential to measure its impact. Executives will always be seeking a return on investment. This will include ensuring goal tracking and attributions are correctly set up in Google Analytics. It means measuring: impressions, likes, shares, comments, views and click-through rates on social media ads. It might mean, setting up a custom landing page that you drive people to from an offline billboard ad.

Understanding what worked well and what didn’t can help create re-marketing lists so you can engage with potential students that have already shown your institution some love, drastically increasing your chances of converting them.


To truly stand out as an institution, you’ll need to offer potential customers something different. You need to create something that is designed with user needs firmly at the heart and that isn’t just a gimmick.

Back in 2015, we at Squiz designed and built a match-making application for the University of Salford. The idea was conceived off the back of research that revealed students going through Clearing were: overwhelmed, stressed and anxious and didn’t like the traditional methods of contacting universities. The application was a success and received national media attention.

Matchmaker 2.0

For 2020 we’ve augmented, upgraded and redesigned the Matchmaker for the modern student.

Matchmaker 2.0 mobile

It’s a slicker, leaner Progressive Web App that still behaves a bit like Tinder with its swiping functionality but we’ve drastically upgraded the UX and the UI. Going from left to right we can see a potential student presented with some option bubbles. They can tap courses or careers that interest them and then on the second screen they can input how many UCAS points they have. The third screen shows a user swiping yes or no on their matches and the fourth screen shows a user looking at a course in more detail.

It’s worth noting a couple of weeks ago it was announced that UCAS would be launching Clearing Plus – an application that works similar to the Matchmaker but spans all universities. With that in mind we’re considering tweaking the Matchmaker a little to focus on year-round course finding rather than just during Clearing. We’re working with a couple of institutions on this but would always love to hear from anyone that thinks it may work for them.

Graduate Story Stream

Another idea we’ve been working on is something we’re calling the Graduate Story Stream. It’s a feature that allows institutions to showcase their best graduate stories to prospective students.

Graduate stream story desktop

It has the ability for users to filter by things like course, year of enrolment and type of student. The graduate ‘cards’ shift in real time to meet the filter inputs so that users can quickly find a graduate story that is relevant to them.

The overriding purpose is to inspire prospective students and give them confidence and reassurance in their choices. We do this by showing users previous graduates that have excelled in their careers having completed the same degree. This might include: logos of companies they’ve worked at, salaries, location pins of where they’ve worked, industry awards and more.

Clearing Chatbot

Clearing chatbot mobile There are a number of different use cases for a Chatbot, such as:

  • I’m interested in a specific course
  • Show me courses with spaces available
  • Show me what it’s like to study at University of 'X'

For this example, the user chooses option one: I’m interested in a specific course.

They’re then shown a few more clarifying options as to whether they are looking at undergraduate courses, Foundation Courses or Short courses. This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course.

Users could find out more information about the course they’re interested in, they could learn about the university as a whole, they could see testimonials from graduates that have done the course. The possibilities really are endless.

Covid-19 Hub

This feature acts as a one-stop-shop, for students of any kind, to learn more about the implications of Covid-19. Whether it’s a prospective international student that needs reassurance to enrol or an existing student that wants to understand when a campus is likely to reopen, there are multiple use-cases for such a Hub.

Covid-19 hub desktop

Virtual Open Days

Finally, we’re doing a lot of work with universities on Virtual Open Days. Demand has gone crazy given that they are the next best thing to a physical open day, which of course - have been rendered impossible to provide for the time being.

Virtual open day desktop

Again there are endless features and functionalities for Virtual Open Days – not everything will be suitable for every university but here we’ve prototyped an interface that lets prospective students take a 360-degree campus tour and speak with lecturers at predefined times. It’s not shown here but the prototype also includes the ability to view graduate stories, learn more about the town or city and even experience a lecture through a Zoom video call.

So here’s to Clearing in 2020 (and beyond).

It’ll be a daunting and anxiety-inducing period for institutions throughout the country but we’re optimistic and confident about the future.

If you’d like to discuss anything in this blog post (or the on demand webinar) please do get in touch. We’d love to hear your thoughts and understand how we might be able to help you navigate these difficult times.

Toby Margetts

Written by

Toby Margetts
‎Digital Strategy Lead – Squiz
2 June 2020

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