A gap year is just a year-long hedonistic holiday full of beaches, backpacks and time out in Thailand, right? Not anymore. With graduate jobs and university places at a premium, thousands of A-level students and university graduates are taking time out, abroad or at home, with the sole purpose of improving their CVs.
According to Professor Andrew Jones, from Birkbeck College, recent trends show a decline in students who spend their year lolling around on beaches. Instead of learning to surf in Nicaragua, they’re teaching in Nepal or learning Mandarin.
Now students go on gap years with a difference - heading to China in an attempt to make themselves more employable, working in industry, or as volunteers abroad.
“What’s happened in the recession is a decline in the numbers of people ‘bumming around’ - their parents haven’t got the money in the same extent”, Jones says.
While he is clear the planned tuition fee increase for 2012 will affect many school leavers planning a year out after this year’s A-levels, he says it won’t stop people taking time out altogether, and numbers haven’t significantly declined in the past few years.
“I predicted 200,000 were taking gap years in 2004. It may be an overstatement now. The data’s not clear and in depends what you include as a gap year.”
Daniella Reich, an 18-year-old student at a private school in Hertfordshire has provisionally accepted a place to study classics at Bristol University, but says she may still do a gap year. And if she does, she wants to work and do internships, rather than go on a round-the-world trip.
“A lot of my friends were planning to take a gap year and at the last minute they decided they couldn’t because they didn’t want to put pressure on their parents. Some people wanted to go into work immediately whereas some people wanted to just travel around. I did want to take a gap year and I still might – I will definitely have to work if I do, I’d like personally to do an internship.”
For Edward Holroyd Pearce, co-founder of CRCC Asia, a company which helps arrange gap years and opportunities to work in China for UK graduates and A-level students, the trend is not surprising. He says he’s seen a rise in numbers taking part in the schemes he has been running since 2006.
"We’re currently staying in contact a lot more with our alumni, we’ve had six people go to [management consultancy] Accenture and loads of people come back to us saying it was a real turning point in interviews, people say their interviewers' eyes lit up when they talk about their China experience and then they go onto really good jobs in finance and media.
“I did Chinese at university and I saw the growth of China coupled with how little the average Western person knows about China and we had a few people ask us how to arrange work experience. Up until we started the only thing foreigners could really do is teach English – which is fine, but if you’re a high-flyer who wants a city career it might be better to do something in marketing or finance.
Holroyd Pearce says his company isn’t limited to just taking on young people who can afford fees: “We are desperately trying to increase accessibility of our programme – we’ve run a scholarship programme to enable people who couldn’t pay the air fare to participate, and we’re encouraging companies to sponsor people."
Alongside companies like CRCC Asia, the government is also getting involved. Professor Jones says their International Citizen Service scheme fits with their big society agenda. “The government has got more actively involved in volunteering abroad ... The government has become more interested in the ‘worthy’ gap year.”
Recent research from the thinktank Demos, written by Jonathan Birdwell, concludes such gap years are a positive influence on graduates’ employment prospects. Birdwell says that increased tuition fees and fewer opportunities for graduates mean that young people are looking to get more from a year out: “Young people might start looking for other opportunities that can allow them to build skills and experience.”
But students now aren’t just volunteering aboard - there are also many schemes set up by charities to help young people work in industry for a year before starting uni.
Newcastle university student Melissa Whipp completed a year in industry scheme through the charity EDT before starting to study business management. The 19-year-old is now an ambassador for the programme, and says it helped her both to mature, and afford university.
“I worked as a marketing assistant Metal Spinners Group. For me personally I didn’t know if I wanted to go to university, it was a way to get experience to find out if I wanted to do the degree that I thought I would - marketing wasn’t quite what I was expecting, so now I’m studying business management.
“In that job as well as marketing I did projects, like a managed the redesign of the company website, keeping to deadline and being creative, which I loved. It’s not quite my style to go on the beach. I’d been inter-railing for a month. It’s definitely a good idea, I think a lot of people go to university and then realise they’d made the wrong choice. I think it’s a great experience, quite a lot of people don’t understand what a 9-5 job is like. It made me a lot more mature and taught me why it was important to work so I didn’t end up in market research. I also saved a couple of thousand pounds to put me through the first year of university.”
But despite the growth of the worthy gap year, some students are still not biting. “Right now I'm young and want to experience other cultures and societies, see those beautiful places I only ever see on television at the moment”, says 18-year-old Oliver Burrows.
“I don't want to look at my life in, say, five years and realise I've never left Kent for anything other than a holiday.
“I did want to do something I felt would be more beneficial to others in my year out initially however I do feel that's something I can do later in life.”
Despite the fee increase, he says many like him want to do these things before “the financial strain” of university.
“Also I feel after university I think I'll feel under more pressure to settle down, get a stable job and wouldn't have time to do all these things I want to do fully.”