Tougher times make teens ditch gap years

After decades of growing popularity, the number of young people taking a gap year has dropped. Is the infamous year abroad an essential experience, or a waste of time?

The end of the Christmas term is at hand, and the dreaded final exams are drawing ever nearer. Sixth-formers everywhere will be beginning to get down to the serious business of planning what comes next: will September see them heading off to university, or does a gap year beckon?

The gap year industry in the UK has enjoyed a roaring trade over the last few decades. But since university fees spiked last year, providers have reported a sharp decline in the number of teenagers jetting off to warmer climes. What is going on?

According to a new study, gap years do make a difference – but not necessarily for the best. Government-funded research released last month shows gap year students are more likely to have smoked cannabis and to have earned less by the age of 30 than those who went straight to university. The study also found that ‘gappers’ are less likely to have confidence in their own abilities and to feel in control of their destiny.

Surveys like this one spread the stereotype of the lazy directionless student traveller, and help to put young people off the idea of a gap year altogether. As do the financial figures: rises in university tuition fees coupled with high youth unemployment mean that an estimated 22% of teenagers simply cannot hope to foot the average £4,000 bill.

But can a gap year teach important lessons? Despite the commonly-held view of a year out being one of endless sunbathing and full moon parties, many students spend the time doing useful internships, aid work, or earning money to fund their future studies – activities that develop maturity, independence and real-world experience.

These more constructive and mind-expanding gap years can be helpful after graduation, too. Some employers are likely to be impressed by evidence of a year out that has developed useful skills. Could others could be put off by a suspicion that the applicant has gone down the ‘fun-in-the-sun’ route?

Gap yah

Some say that while there are so few jobs available for young people, it is imperative for them either to get university qualifications as quickly as possible, or to head straight into the job market. Taking a whole year away from study or a career, often incurring yet more costs in the process, they argue, is plainly a pointless and useless thing to do.

Lighten up, others say. Teenagers should grab the opportunity to do something new and have a little fun: taking time out to explore, as well as pick up valuable skills and experience, is neither pointless nor useless. After all, they argue, there is nothing desirable about rushing through the system, only to emerge without any knowledge of life outside the educational bubble.

You Decide

  1. Are gap years a waste of time?
  2. What is the most important thing for young people to pursue: a degree, a foothold on the career ladder, or life experience?

Activities

  1. Write two different personal statements for university applications, one for someone who plans to take a gap year, and then one for someone who hasn’t.
  2. Plan a full and useful gap year, taking into account how you will earn the money to do it all.

Some People Say...

“Gap years are a luxury for the rich.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I can’t afford a gap year anyway...
Well, don’t be so sure. Many organisations offer travel scholarships and funding to those who apply early, as long as you go on to do something worthwhile with your time. And don’t forget, a potentially expensive travelling gap year is not the only option available to you.
What else is there?
The popularity of UK-based gap years has soared recently, with companies like Year in Industry reporting that twice as many students are now interested in the cheaper option of working at home during their year out. In fact, many of the volunteers at this year’s Olympics and Paralympics were gap year students.

Word Watch

Roaring trade
Big UK gap year companies, like Raleigh International, Trekforce and gapyear.com, specialise in sending students abroad to developing nations, either on adventure projects or community aid schemes. Ten years ago around 50,000 students were regularly applying for places, with each student paying thousands of pounds to go on a trip lasting an average of three months.
Stereotype
One of the most visible examples of gap year stereotyping in recent years was the ‘Gap Yah’ video, made by London production company VMproductions, which has amassed 4.5 million views on YouTube since 2010. Featuring a stereotypical public schoolboy discussing his riotous adventures on the phone with his friend ‘Tarquin’, the video has spawned a series of spin-off products, including a book and an official single.
Put off
It is not just potential employers who might think twice about accepting someone who has taken a gap year, but universities, too. This usually depends on which course is being applied for. Mathematics, for example, is an extremely difficult course to get on to for a student with gap year plans, since mathematicians claim younger students are better at grasping new concepts.

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