The ‘need’ for late teens to have a gap year for travelling is one of the most tiresome arguments of the last twenty years. A privileged middle class ‘right’ that seems to be in focus again because many more students are choosing to or being asked to defer their degrees. UCAS, the universities admissions service, says the overall number of students postponing their starts has risen by 12 per cent, with the biggest rise among school-leavers. This is seen as a consequence of the pandemic and fears about the quality of education – after two disrupted years for students – but also because some courses are over-subscribed.
So, what to do if you get asked to defer or if you feel you should wait another year before beginning your degree? In one radio discussion I heard a typically non-world aware commentator say, “what is my daughter going to do if they defer, it’s not like they can travel the world?” The implication was the pandemic had made the gap year pointless. But what about getting a job or working with a UK charity instead? This shallow and advantaged view of the world lacks an understanding of how times have changed. Not just in the last 18 months but over the last few decades as we live longer and live differently.
Many teenagers are pressured too much by schools and parents to think about university and that means they can often make the wrong choice. Wait a bit and make a better decision is always my guidance. If you finish school and want to travel that’s fine. But a gap year – or gap yaarrrr as all the memes like to call it – can be used for much more than just visiting famous landmarks to share on Instagram. Perhaps get a job and earn some money to compensate for the ‘mountain of debt’ you will accrue as a student. There are more jobs than ever needing to be filled – and you can get some valuable life experience that might just mean you value your degree even more.
There are dozens of websites helping you with ideas about what to do with a gap year – normally involving helping charities in various parts of the world. But again, the focus is what to do over 12 months. But why not take a break from education for longer? The gap year seems to simply defer the inevitable and achieve very little. And let us not pretend it is about a deserved break from education after at least fourteen years. That claim rather ignores the fact that most students get eight to ten weeks off each summer to have their break.
A gap year is about already deciding to go to university and delaying for a year - but sometimes teenagers need longer to decide what to do and where their life might go. The fact that no decision at 18 or 19 is final, seems to get lost when schools need good university statistics, and the system suggests failure if you don’t go into higher education. Releasing that pressure and emphasising that you can do many things and none of them will decide your future seems a much more balanced approach.
It also used to be true that the argument was to travel now while you can – before the rigours of life take over. But these days the tables have turned and with better health – people can travel at retirement or before and experience new things at a stage in life when you can afford to and when finding adventure can sometimes be needed.
My experience is that the cliché gap year is something that ultimately achieves very little apart from satisfy a large amount of self-indulgence. Taking an opportunity to gain a broader perspective on life might involve some kind of travel – but it might also mean supporting food banks, working in your local coffee shop or helping in your local community as a volunteer. You never know, widening your exposure to people living around you might just lead you to discovering something that you would really like to do at university or elsewhere. Remember though at 18/19 nothing is final. Embrace the opportunities you may have and understand that there will be many more to come.