Exclusive content

Logged in users benefit from exclusive intelligence and analysis including premium reports, monthly source market information, on-the-ground intelligence, and IDP research.


Don't have an account? Register

There’s no denying that Clearing 2020 is unlike any other. With just over a week to go until A-level results day and the annual scramble for filling university places, which this year is intensified even further by potential falls in both domestic and international student recruitment, knowing how and where to focus efforts come the 13th of August is critical for institutions across the UK. 

But how can you possibly predict the winners and losers of Clearing this year? How can you pre-emptively identify and optimize for the subjects which will over-attract or under-perform, and so make informed Clearing marketing decisions?  

Utilising both historic and up-to-the-minute live data from the Whatuni site, IDP Connect’s data experts have analysed online student behaviour and activity from October 2018 to May 2020 to appraise how student interest and decision making has shifted during a past Clearing period and over the past few months in the context of COVID-19.  

The insight gleaned is being shared here to support institutions in preparing for Clearing 2020, setting realistic expectations and targets, and ensuring the best outcomes possible. 

Given the uncertainty over how the new grading system will affect A-level results this year, Clearing 2020 will inevitably spring some surprises that cannot be foreseen. But, through a nuanced, careful and thorough investigation into IDP Connect’s student data, we can make informed predictions as to what to expect on A-level results day.  

Here, we outline some of the key subject trend predictions for Clearing 2020.

Overall Subject Trends 

As demonstrated in the graph below, Medicine related subjects hold by far and away the largest share of interest from students throughout the 2-and-a-half-year period, consistently claiming over 20%. Social Studies and Media have the second-highest share, hovering around 15%, but during the Clearing period on 2019 interest in Applied and Pure Sciences claimed a larger share of interest, and the gap between these two subjects has consistently edged closer together.  

The majority of the top 10 most popular subject areas showed an increase in % share of interest during Clearing 2019 in comparison to the rest of the year.  Interestingly Creative Arts and Design, one of the more volatile subject areas in terms of interest over the period analysed, showed a significant drop in the % share of interest during clearing 2019. One potential reason for this may be due to the greater levels of coursework in the assessment of these subjects, resulting in a greater ability to accurately predict grades before results day. This could lead to fewer students looking to re-assess their course options after receiving their grades in comparison to other subjects. Another subject which showed a decrease in % share during Clearing 2019, although to a lesser extent, was Travel Tourism and Hospitality.

As demonstrated in the graph above, the strongest subject area overall, both in terms of overall interest and consistent growth, is Medicine. Whether this is due to the perceived stability of the sector in terms of future employment, the recent STEM campaigns of the government, the inspirational performance of the NHS and medical workers during the pandemic, or a combination of all these factors, interest in Medicine has shown successive growth over the past couple of years and should continue to receive high levels of interest throughout Clearing 2020. 

Applied and Pure Sciences is another subject area that has not only seen year-on-year growth in % share of interest, but also saw a spike during Clearing 2019, suggesting students receiving their grades are likely to consider Applied and Pure Sciences courses as an alternative to their original choices.  

Despite having the 2nd largest % share of interest, Social Studies and Media have shown a consistent decline over the past 2 years and during Clearing 2019 did not show the increase in % share of interest witnessed in other subject areas. This suggests that, while interest remains, it is not an area of growth and institutions may find it increasingly challenging to fill courses in those subjects.  

Having established key features in the overall subject trends, we next drill down into the nuances of sub-disciplines within the three most highly searched subjects, Medicine, Social Studies and Media, and Applied and Pure Sciences.  


Within Medicine, Psychology maintains the largest % share of interest, with significant peaks in interest just before and after Clearing 2019 and a notable climb in interest from April of 2020. Nursing has seen a general trend towards a higher % share of interest over the past 2 years, perhaps enhanced by the recent reinstatement of the NHS bursary, although interest in fact dipped slightly in August 2019 before continuing to climb in September. This suggests that while during A-level results month other subjects may see a greater spike in interest, Nursing will maintain that interest over a longer period.  

The sharpest spike in % share of interest within Medicine was for Medical Technology/ Pharmacology, which goes from averaging the second-lowest share of interest in the subject area to the second-highest during the Clearing period. This sharp spike would indicate that during Clearing, when many students are looking for alternative courses in a similar field, they become both more aware and interested in alternative medicine courses. A slightly more delayed spike in interest is seen in midwifery, which peaked in September 2019. 

Another key point to note, in the context of the current pandemic, is that despite a relatively steady increase in share of interest for Semi-Medical/Physical/Psycho/Therapies courses between December 2018 and February 2020, with a slight drop during Clearing, at present interest has plummeted.  

Media struggles, but Economics bucks trend

Interest in Social Studies and Media appears to be in decline in general, although it currently remains the second-largest field in terms of % share of interest, and during Clearing 2019 both Moving Image/Photography/Media Production and Communication/Media courses saw sharp declines in that % share. This factor, coupled with either a decline or volatile interest since January 2020, would suggest that these subjects may again show reduced interest during A-level results day 2020. 

Journalism has maintained a low percentage share of interest, but interestingly appears not to show either decline or incline of % share during Clearing or as a result of the pandemic. In contrast, Economics has not only shown a general increasing trend in interest since January 2020, but also showed the largest increase over August (including A-level results day) 2019. The key takeaway within Social Studies and Media appears to be to predict a general decline in % share of interest on A-level results day, with Economics bucking the trend and receiving significantly higher searches than throughout the rest of the year. 

Applied and Pure Sciences 

A consistent spike in interest for Applied and Pure Sciences during Clearing, almost all of which saw an increase in interest share over August 2019 and A level results day. The only exception here is Zoology, which sees the sharpest increase in interest share over September 2019. Applied and Pure Sciences are also an important growth area during Clearing, often viewed by students who have missed out on Medicine related courses as an alternative route into the field due to lower entry requirements. 

Life Sciences, in particular, can be expected to hold a high share of interest this year, not only is it the most popular of the Applied and Pure Sciences, but interest spiked both during Clearing 2019 and at the beginning of the pandemic, indicating that the subject is resilient to the influence of the current climate and is a popular alternative course for students when they receive their A-level grades.  

Biomedical Sciences, a known alternative route to Medicine, is another key sub-discipline as it saw the highest spike in interest of all the Applied and Pure Sciences during Clearing 2019. It can be assumed that students who have missed out on their grades for Medicine may turn to Biological Sciences as an alternative route into the field, and with interest in Medicine having consistently grown and A-level grades likely to differ from student expectations, Biological Sciences, in addition to Life Sciences, could prove even more popular in August 2020.  

Interestingly, interest share for Chemistry has declined over the 2-year period, although we can expect a slight increase on A-level results day if students achieve the required grades due to the notable spike in August 2019. Comparably, interest in Geography, which dipped either side of Clearing 2019, has steadily climbed since February 2020 indicating a return to popularity and, if an A-level results day spike occurs again in 2020, could take a surprisingly high chunk of % share.  

Further Clearing 2020 Analysis 

The above predictions make use of the highest quality live student data available in the UK, drawn from the Whatuni site up until May 2020. In the coming weeks we will provide insights from data drawn over the Clearing Period, and A-level results day itself, to provide up to date information and analysis of student behaviour and support our partners in optimizing their recruitment efforts during this tumultuous period. 

For further and more in-depth information on the 2020 predictions drawn from the data, including the sub-discipline trends within the remaining top 10 subject areas and regional variations please reach out to ukclientpartnerships@idp-connect.com

For more information on the new Domestic IQ services, that enable institutions to carry out their own analysis of live, real-time IDP Connect data, visit the specialist IQ page here.

CP - Image - Headshot - Ella Grimwade - UK
Ella Grimwade06 August 2020