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Why has a gap year suddenly become such a risky option?

Jim Dickinson weighs the risks of enrolling versus taking a year out this September and wonders why all the warnings are weighted one way.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

On my first night at a former poly in the mid-90s, I somehow managed to find myself in a dreary conversation in the SU bar with some posh people trying to outdo each other with tales of them taking a year out to build schools and going “interrailing”.

My panicked contribution to this conversation was as follows:

On my gap year I travelled and worked. I travelled to Wolverhampton and worked in a shoe shop.”

I suspect they thought I was joking.

We don’t know whether they’re coming or going

I’ve reminded myself repeatedly of this tale throughout the pandemic as sector speculation has mounted on whether (and if they do, why) students might defer entry (or return) to university in September. The standard assertion from almost everyone is that the lack of international travel and employment  options, coupled with the tantalising prospect of freedom after months of being cooped up in the parental home, ought to dampen demand for the gap year. And associated with that is an assumption that being on the dole makes less economic sense than the disposable income of a maintenance loan.

These are rite-of-passage facets of freedom and independence – both social and financial. Even if they are universal desires, the social freedom this autumn may be being oversold, as we’ve discussed on the site before – students may not be expecting, but may get, some combination of a monastery and a minimum security prison. And for many the lack of part time work to top up the maintenance loan (plus the deferred realisation of how expensive university is generally) may dampen the financial freedom on offer too. On both we may only discover these effects well into next term, but we probably hadn’t ought to exacerbate them.

For all the surveys and data from UCAS or SLC, we still don’t really know how many will come (or more likely will come then quickly go) – and even where we can guess, what the characteristics of those students and the distribution around the sector of them will be. Some of the speculation gets remixed in light of news like this from Harvard, where early indications are that 20% of first year undergrads have deferred. Exhaustion and confirmation bias kick in as we search for reasons that we’re not like Harvard. Their students’ families will all be richer. They’ve cancelled all in person teaching. So we’ll be OK.

Maybe we will – but at what cost? Listening to the assertions and advice on gap year participation all summer has generated the same feelings of “might be normal for you mate, but not for me” that I had on that evening in September 1995. Even the name “gap year” contains underpinning assertions about what’s usual and unusual, promoting as it does a non-stop conveyor belt of educational normality that says that pausing your full time education at any point until you’re given an invoice for your graduation gowns somehow makes you a weirdo.

What we do know is that University of Hertfordshire/Student Hut research shows that two thirds (65%) of young people feel they are being forced to make higher education subject choices too early. Six in ten (61%) students say that they should be able to apply to university only after receiving their A level or BTEC results. According to the Sutton Trust and YouthSight, three quarters (73%) of applicants are most worried about how the pandemic will impact their ability to take part in university social life. Two thirds are worried about the impact of little or no face to face teaching. Just over half (54%) are worried about the possibility of catching or spreading Covid-19. And 36% of working-class applicants and 42% of BAME applicants are worried about moving away from home. They all want a break go gather thoughts and some certainty. Are they all… wrong?

Mind the gappers

We know surprisingly little generally about who takes a “gap year”, but eight years ago the Department for Education commissioned a study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies through the old Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions (CAYT) that looked specifically at gap year takers: uptake, trends and long term outcomes.

It’s fascinating because it did this by using two datasets: the British Cohort Study (BCS), which followed the population of individuals born in a particular week of April 1970 (who were first eligible to enter HE in September 1988) – and the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE), which followed a cohort of young people as they made decisions about whether or not to enter higher education – and whether or not to take a gap year – at the height of the 2008 recession.

There are several things of note in the findings. First we discover that there were multiple routes into a gap year – over two fifths of gap year takers did not apply to university before sitting their A levels, and almost a third of gap year takers didn’t not express an intention to take a gap year when asked about it in Year 13 – suggesting that it was an unexpected decision for these individuals, perhaps in response to poorer than expected exam results. We might assume that in the intervening years those two routes have both become less popular as access initiatives have improved application rates, and expansion has improved the chances of those disappointed with their results being able to jump straight back onto the conveyor belt in clearing.

There’s also some backup for the cliche. Relative to those who go straight to university, gap year takers in the LSYPE were more likely to come from higher socio-economic backgrounds and better performing schools. But a deeper dive shows two distinct groups of gappers.

  • One large group planed to take a gap year, applied to and accepted a place atuniversity before they left school, was more likely to go travelling, had higher ability and came from a more affluent socio-economic background – and was much more likely to take up their place at university on their return. The “normal” ones.
  • Another group were less likely to have planned to take a gap year, hadn’t applied for and accepted a place before they left school, were more likely to have worked and/or continued in full-time education during their “gap year”, and tended to come from a lower socio-economic background. The “new normal”, if you will.

Their motivation for taking a break is arguably widely misunderstood. The most popular stated reasons were to gain more independence and take a break from education. They wanted off the conveyor belt for a while, in other words.

In any event, the impacts on outcomes were fascinating. First, the study found that gap year takers were more likely to graduate with a first or second class degree compared to those who went straight to higher education, particularly once account was taken of their prior attainment. And then while age-based snapshot analysis of wages suggested that gap year takers had lower salaries, it turned out that that was because of delayed entry to the labour market.

Given how long we’re all living now – and the emergence of a new “middle stage” between the old binaries of childhood and adulthood – where one happens to drop a few years in HE between 18 and 30 probably doesn’t make much difference at all in the long run.

Dropping out

The other frequently frustrating bit of framing that everyone clings to is “dropping out”, and so another bit of research I was refamiliarising myself with the other day was our work on student activities, belonging, loneliness, non continuation and the links between them all.

One of things we asked in the qual was why people that were considering dropping out frequently hadn’t yet – and the bulk of the answers were heartbreaking. So many of them were about the pressure to appear strong, not wanting to let down their family or housemates, and not wanting to reveal what they had come to internalise as weaknesses.

In so many cases they took aspects of the student experience that don’t work out for them as described, and blamed themselves for the impact those things were having on their own mental health and attainment.

Fuse that with this chart from the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey, and you start to say to say yourself not “how can we stop people deferring”, and instead ask “why don’t we make everyone take a year out to think about it properly first” – or at least “why don’t we make it more socially acceptable, normal or attractive”.

Where you hopefully get to is a consensus – that information, advice, guidance and advertising about university should give applicants what they need to make a good choice for them – rather than pile pressure on to make a bad choice that they end up regretting. And the problem right now is that decent IAG that helps a student weigh up whether pausing one’s studies (either between school/college and university, or during university) is a good idea in the middle of a pandemic is in desperately short supply – because government, sector agencies and anyone else with a platform repeatedly assert what a jolly good idea it is to stay on the conveyor belt.

Reassure me

All of which loops us back to the question of risk.

As I noted above, little in the 2013 research is directly comparable because there wasn’t a major pandemic on in 2008. There are lots of ways to argue whether it’s in someone’s long term interests to take a gap year or not, and that’s true both generally, and specifically in relation to a year in which a pandemic is generating what are hopefully time-limited social, physical, educational and financial restrictions on the academic year.

What is clear is that both enrolling in September and not enrolling in September involves risk – and the risks of both options have increased during the pandemic.

In an ideal world, an education system that welcomed people stepping on and off, and that didn’t always frame pausing as failure (either on a student or a provider’s part) – with funding and regulation to match – would remove some of the risk from taking a “gap year” or “dropping out” for a while.

In an ideal pandemic response, instead of responding to deep levels of student uncertainty with “ah you’ll be OK and the alts are worse”, we’d have found (or at least be campaigning for) some viable and valuable alternatives to traditional gap years.

Even more ideally, faced with the need to keep the economic model of UK HE going collectively (and not create a huge crunch in 2021) we’d have taken steps by now to “de-risk” enrolling immediately – both in relation to the viability of the provision/institution and the uncertainty built into the wider experience. But for whatever reason neither national governments, nor regulators, nor providers have been able to do so.

It leaves almost all of the risk of enrolling onto a course in the middle of a pandemic on the shoulders of the individual student. Given that, it would be nice if we were at least able to refrain as a sector from pressure-framing the taking of that risk as an act of individual bravery and strength.

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