The burden of student debt hangs heavy over many in full time education. Given the looming sense of financial apocalypse, it’s easy to think that a career-driven, ascetic student life is the only way forward. Head down, costs down, get into your studies and then on into work.
For those whose results this week have been ‘unexpected’, catapulting them into the panic of Clearing, the idea of a gap year might seem indulgent – an echo of a golden age when gilded youths flopped languidly on Goan beaches swapping bon mots in front of the sinking sun before heading to grant-supported education. Yes, that happened. Ask your parents.
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But, if you are going through Clearing, remember as you throw all your carefully laid plans in the air that they don’t have to fall back into place for a university start in October. It doesn’t have to look the same but in a different location.
Consider a deferred place. Consider stepping back – you’ve been in education for a while – and maybe live a little before you step right in again.
You wouldn’t be the only one. Around 230,000 students take time out either before or after college or university. And it makes sense. When else are you going to have the freedom you have right now? There’s financial risk, but there are few times in your life when you can laze around abroad and maintain a socially acceptable CV. Career breaks may be possible in theory; in practice, the numbers who get around to travelling later in life are pretty low.
While money may well be tight and set to get tighter, most school-leavers will have fewer ties now than in the debt-laden future. And taking that year away, having a place secured at university, pre-empts the worst of all travel angst: what to do when you get home.
Not that travel is the only option. Consider volunteering or work experience in the industry you’ve got your sights on (though if that’s becoming a professional Fortnite player or cementing your reputation as a YouTuber, have a game plan).
Whatever you decide to do, you’ll need to address the question before sending in your formal application – so when you’re doing the ring around to universities, you can ask for a delayed entry. They won’t think any the worse of you, although admissions tutors may ask what you plan to gain from the time off, so make sure you have an answer ready. Let’s not pretend jetting around the world will make you a better person: it won’t. But you can rationalise most itineraries.
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Whether admissions tutors genuinely think that travel broadens the mind is debatable – perhaps they simply hope next year’s freshers will get the worst excesses out of their systems on some foreign beach rather than on campus. Either way, such concerns shouldn’t cloud your horizon.
Once you’ve decided to make the break, and if you are planning to travel, then a word of warning. If you do take a gap longer than nine months before you start your course, you should make sure you have as much proof as possible of your intended return to study. This might include evidence of having secured deferred entry to your chosen institution and/or tickets with a specific date of return, if you’re taking the travelling route.
In the past, some local education authorities have not accepted that a period of longer than nine months abroad is a temporary absence and have, therefore, disqualified students from tuition support and student loans on the grounds they do not fulfil the residency requirement for such support. This can be challenged, but the more proof you can supply that your absence will be temporary, the more likely it is to succeed. Contact your local National Union of Students’ welfare unit for more details if you think this might be a problem for you.
Having taken the plunge, the big question – how to fund your year – is the first to solve. The old-fashioned route (not possible for all, of course) is to find out if there’s scope to live rent-free with family and get your head down for a long slog of paid work to gather the pennies. But if staying a few more months at home is a heavy price for you – or your parents – to pay, there are alternatives.
Raising money and making cash go further might prove easier under the aegis of charitable organisations. Raleigh International and Project Trust are perhaps the best known of many groups that look for volunteers to work overseas on conservation or charity projects (neatly solving the volunteer/travel conundrum).
Typically, you raise an initial sum, then work for around three months with all accommodation and subsistence provided, but with travel tickets that allow you to stay abroad and do your own thing for much longer. The structure and support these charities offer, and the environmental and community projects they run, mean you’re likely to get something more tangible than a sun-tan.
If you don’t want to commit to a long-term project abroad, travelling and working as you go is a possibility. Making your way to Australia for a working stop on a round-the-world trip is a classic – attractive not least for sunshine in January. And again, it’s easier when you’re young as temporary work visas are usually only issued to people under 30. Of course, you can’t be certain your pounds will go far any more. Yes, Brexit does stretch that far.
Remember, too, that working abroad can more glamorous than it is. Sorting out the paperwork through an organisation like BUNAC might help you get a job in the US, but have a good think if you really want to be an au pair or camp counsellor. Holiday firms offering courier or chalet jobs are likely to pay a pittance – but they can also be a lot of fun.
Try, if possible, to speak to your predecessors or current incumbents in any such job to work out just what the costs and rewards amount to. Resorts have their own economy, and things like customer tips, breakfast or free beer at the bar can make or break you on holiday rep wages.
There’s no obligation to make hard and fast plans, but you should be wary of falling into the trap of planning to save and travel, then never making it out of your stop-gap job. Having said that, once exam results, teachers and careers advisors become a distant memory, it can often be easier to work out for yourself just what you fancy doing and where you want to go.
It’s a harsh fact of life are that pre-university, a year without obligation feels like freedom and opportunity. Post-graduation, it’s called unemployment.
If you have the chance of travelling now, go for it.