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Gap years in the media


The Times, 15 December 2007

‘Gap year safety checks’, letter to the editor, The Times 15 December 2007. By Julia Brookes:

My son is on a gap year before starting university. He is planning to travel next year on his own and is interested in an organised tour through South America or possibly Africa by bus or truck. There are several companies that organise this type of trip, including Oasis Overland, but I am concerned about his safety. Is it possible to check out the safety record of such travel companies and find independent reviews? -from Alison Hogg, via e-mail.

There is no official source for checking the safety record of the different companies. Travel blog websites such as www.thorntree. lonelyplanet.com and www.bugbitten.com contain reviews, but the independence of any write-up must be taken with a pinch of salt. Your best option might be to call the companies direct, explain your concerns, and ask questions. This should give you a good idea of their attitude and professionalism and they may be prepared to put you in touch with a previous traveller direct. It would be sensible to book with a UK registered company, for whom liability insurance is a legal requirement since their underwriters demand good maintenance and safety standards to reduce their risk.


The Daily Mail, 15 October 2007

‘Gap year students are putting wallets before wanderlust.’ Extract from Laura Clark. For most students, gap years used to mean strapping on a backpack and heading off to see the world. But these days it is more likely to mean 12 months of work to finance their forthcoming university studies, a bank survey suggests. Last year's hike in university tuition fees to £3,000 a year is putting paid to many school leavers' travels. The cost of a three-year degree, including fees and living expenses, is now estimated to be £35,000. NatWest polled almost 3,500 school-leavers, current students and graduates. It found that 24 per cent of those who finished sixth form this summer are planning a gap year before going on to higher education. But 54 per cent of these - more than 50,000 across the country - plan to use the time to earn cash rather than travelling the world. Some students said they might include some travelling in their year off but stressed that they did not want to end up with no cash at the end of it. They hope to offset some of the cost of university with grants, bursaries, parental help and part-time or even full-time work but many still expect to graduate thousands of pounds in debt. School-leavers were also found to be more worried about the financial cost of three years at university than they were about securing top grades. More than half - 55 per cent - said they were not financially prepared for university while 17 per cent believed it would take them ten years to pay back their debts. Meanwhile, a third of graduates admit they would have thought twice about going to university if they had known the scale of their debts on leaving. Previous surveys have suggested parents are gearing up to offer more financial help to their children. A poll earlier this month showed nearly two thirds would divert cash from their salaries to put their children through university and help prevent them being saddled with debt as they begin their careers. One in ten would consider remortgaging the house or selling the car. Ministers recently pledged to increase student grant support to more families, with two-thirds of students now eligible for at least a partial grant.


The Guardian, 2 October 2007

‘Forget foreign adventure: boredom’s the key to success.’ Extract from: Jonathan Wolff What should I do on my gap year? Oddly, this was not a question I had considered before being asked it recently by an anxious sixth-former, but the concern behind it is obvious. Given that so many applicants are applying with three, or even four, A-grade A-levels, there must be a chance that the right gap-year activities will provide the all-important competitive edge. In the US, the need to provide a portfolio of extra-curricular activities, to prove how "rounded" one is, has been taken for granted for years by applicants to elite colleges. High school marching bands are, no doubt, full of Ivy League wannabees; how else, after all, could one persuade teenagers to take up the trombone or cornet? The UK has not yet reached such obsessive levels. Nevertheless, the UCAS personal statement has been tormenting teenagers - and the admissions tutors with the job of reading them - for decades. I must have read thousands, although not for some years. The only thing I can remember is an Irish applicant who had caught a record-breaking fish, although I can't remember whether I offered her a place. But I also recall many dispiriting interviews with candidates who could remember nothing about the books that their statements claimed had made such a deep and lasting impression on them. For some subjects, the obvious way to spend a gap year is to do work experience. It must help an application to read law if you have worked for a firm of solicitors, or an application to veterinary school if you have been up to your elbows in farm animals recently. But for non-vocational degrees, what should you do? Going abroad and doing good sounds like it should help, and of course it is a wonderful thing to do, regardless of its effects on one's university career. But it has all become a bit routine. Lots of little firms will, for a suitable fee, arrange a placement somewhere. Commercialisation sucks out much of the romance and most of the initiative, turning volunteering into another activity holiday. A bit likely saying on your UCAS form that your parents bought you a record-breaking fish. From the point of view of your university education, as distinct from personal growth and development, there is a another consideration to take into account. Years ago we used to get a good number of students in their mid-twenties, or even older. Many of them had done well enough at school but, for whatever reason, decided not to go straight on to university. Perhaps they couldn't find a course that, at the time, interested them. Some wanted to pursue a career right away, as a musician, a clothes designer or, in one case, an armed robber. But eventually their thoughts turned to university. A surprisingly high proportion of these students were among the very best we have ever had in our department. There are fewer now, as so many more people go to university at 18 or 19. But what is it that made them so good? It is natural to think that it was their extra experience of life that gave them the edge: a rich and varied past could provide a level of insight that those who had never left education could not match. But I prefer a different explanation. The mere fact of working for a living is eye-opening. You have to get up in the morning before you feel ready. Often you have to wear clothes you resent having had to buy and would never wear through choice. When you get there, people tell you what to do and how to do it, even when you could work out a better way for yourself. And, in many jobs, your days are spent willing the hands on the clock to move faster so that you can go and buy an over-chilled sandwich that tastes of cardboard or - fantastic - you can go back home, by means of an overcrowded and smelly bus or train. In other words, work, particularly menial office work, can be both deadly dull and highly demanding. After a few years of that, university is like stepping into paradise. The springs of motivation are unleashed. Only those who have been crushed by boring routine can appreciate what a privilege it is to go to university. So what do I want students to do on their gap year? It might not look so good on an UCAS form, but I'd say: find the dullest job you can. Professor Jonathan Wolff is head of philosophy at University College London.

From the Times on Line, 18 August, 2007

‘Gap-year companies to face tough controls on dubious charity work.’ Rosemary Bennett, Social Affairs Correspondent. Gap-year companies that sell package deals to students seeking voluntary work overseas face tough controls under a new quality mark scheme. The move, which includes a code of conduct and comes into force this year, will attempt to expose companies that offer dubious charity work. Those that operate in the multi-million-pound “voluntourism” market will risk being blacklisted if they do not comply. The Times has learnt that the code will require companies to prove that the projects they send students to are long-term and sustainable, not just established hastily to meet the latest fashionable cause or popular destination. Students and other “gappers” who want to work with children will be vetted. There is currently no compulsory screening of volunteers, although some companies insist on a Criminal Records Bureau check. The companies will also be obliged to disclose how they spend the fees that are paid by students. The average cost of a trip is £2,000, excluding flights. Board and lodgings amount to only a fraction of the price and students are often given little indication of what the cash was spent on. “Voluntourism” is highly profitable and the two biggest commercial operators, i-to-i and Real Gap Experience, each make hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. I-to-i was so profitable that it was bought this year by First Choice, the package holiday company, for £16 million. Tourism Concern, a development charity, will police the scheme. It has drawn up the code with the Network of International Development Organisations in Scotland. It will be launched by the end of the year. More than half of the 76 operators in the market have indicated that they intend to be part of it. Tourism Concern believes that the system will deter bogus projects that are set up in developing countries and have little impact on the local communities, such as counting turtles that have been counted many times by previous students. Voluntary Service Overseas this week urged students to go backpacking and enjoy themselves rather than spending a fortune on spurious voluntary schemes that often “did more harm than good”. Tourism Concern said that several companies had indicated that they wanted students to be able to differentiate between genuine voluntary work and demand-driven projects. It said that operators had also voiced concern that the current trade organisation, the Year Out Group, was not stringent enough on its members. Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, said that the quality mark would increase transparency and that students would be able to make a more informed choice. “We are at a point where volunteering is dovetailing into tourism. More people want to volunteer abroad and the age group involved is getting bigger,” she said.

James Rolton travelled around the US, New Zealand and Australia in his gap year and decided that he would like to do something more worthwhile in the summer while he studied geography at University of Manchester. He paid £2,500 to a small gap-year operator to volunteer as a teacher in Tanzania. When he arrived it became clear that no teaching was required. Instead he helped to build new lavatories and a covered veranda at the school. “It was a bit disappointing that what I had been offered was simply not there. The company was pretty disorganised on the ground,” he said. “Others started to question where the money had gone when they realised how cheap it was to live in Tanzania. But I was more positive. OK, it wasn’t what I’d expected, but I built something that was really needed.”

From The Times, 14 August, 2007

'Gap-year students told to forget aid projects.' Rosemary Bennett, Social Affairs Correspondent, extract: One of Britain’s leading charities has warned students not to take part in gap-year aid projects overseas which cost thousands of pounds and do nothing to help developing countries. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) said that gap-year volunteering, highlighted by Princes William and Harry, has spawned a new industry in which students pay thousands of pounds for prepackaged schemes to teach English or help to build wells in developing countries with little evidence that it benefits local communities. It said that “voluntourism” was often badly planned and spurious projects were springing up across Africa, Asia and Latin America to satisfy the demands of the students rather than the needs of locals. Young people would be better off simply travelling the world and enjoying themselves, it added. Judith Brodie, the director of VSO UK, said: “While there are many good gap-year providers, we are increasingly concerned about the number of badly planned and supported schemes that are spurious - ultimately benefiting no one apart from the travel companies that organise them.” VSO is drawing up a code of good practice to help gapyear students to find genuine voluntary work abroad. The charity cited the case of a volunteer teacher in Africa who was surprised to be shunned by her fellow teachers, then discovered that her placement had led to a colleague being made redundant. In another case, a volunteer in Mexico who thought that she would be working on a rural conservation project spent six months behind a desk in an office inputting data onto spreadsheets. Another volunteer was asked to survey endangered coral reef in the Indian Ocean and dicovered that it had been surveyed countless times before by previous volunteers. Taking a gap year used to be the preserve of only the wealthiest students, but it is now big business. Up to 200,000 people do it every year, including 130,000 school-leavers. The average gapyear traveller spends £4,800, and numerous companies have sprung up to get a slice of the market by offering prepackaged trips to projects for just two weeks at a time. Gapyear.com, one of the biggest players, is offering places on dozens of voluntary projects, including work on a South African horse safari for £2,400 or two months observing coral and marine life in Borneo for £1,895. Another firm, i-to-i, is offering work with orphans in Argentina for £1,095. In most cases the price does not cover the flight, but in-country travel, accommodation and an orientation session on arrival is included.

Ms Brodie urged students to go backpacking instead. “Young people want to make a difference, but they would be better off travelling and experiencing different cultures, rather than wasting time on projects that have no impact and can leave a big hole in their wallet,” she said. Prince William went to Chile with Raleigh International in 2000 to help to build schools. The charity said that his work had sparked “a lot more interest” in its projects. Prince Harry worked with orphans in Lesotho. Tom Griffiths, founder of gapyear.com, defended his business. “Some companies raise the expectations of students to unrealistic levels and make them think they will change the world. When they get there they discover they are only small players in the project and feel disappointed,” he said. A spokeswoman for i-to-i defended its short-term voluntary breaks and said it made sure that all the projects were sustainable. “Not everyone has a year or two years to go off and do voluntary work,” she said. Raleigh International backed VSO’s call for caution. “Students should be very careful about the voluntary work they choose,” a spokeswoman said.


The Times, 24 July 2007

‘Taking a gap year without the gap, extract from Camilla Eden. You don't have to take a year out to reap the benefits of travelling or working abroad. We look at how you can use your uni holidays to gain the gap year experience in bits and bobs.According to UCAS, the number of university applicants wishing to defer their place for a gap year fell from 7.7 per cent to 7.3 per cent last year. But the activities associated with a year out - adventures abroad, internships and paid work - remain a popular attraction for young people, many of whom nonetheless want to get straight into the thick of it at university after their A-Levels. Now though, students are finding it easy to glean the gap year experience without having to take a year out. Cliched as it sounds, gap years are a chance to experience new things, learn more about the world, grow up and - if you're really lucky - gain a sense of direction in terms of what you want to do with your life. However they are essentially a luxury - not everyone has the time or cash to spend a year gallavanting around the world, or doing unpaid work experience in the field of their choice. But if money is tight or you are just itching to start uni after doing your A-Levels, there's no reason you shouldn't be making the most of your time off. Starting university without a gap year does not have to mean a lack of travelling or one-off experiences; if anything, those who know they have time restrictions can often fit in far more than those taking twelve months off. “What is more important is not taking a gap year, but being proactive,” says Nottingham University student Tom Strange. “I know many people who spent nine months bumming around at home, which achieved absolutely nothing in terms of personal development. All it did was drain the bank-of-dad.” There are countless ways of getting a "gap year snippet" during your summer break or the few weeks you get off university at winter and Easter. Hundreds of companies offer short-term ventures, placements or travelling opportunities, whether this is working in an orphanage in Africa, building a school in Asia or learning Spanish in Argentina. Camps International, who offer short travelling experiences, remind the student “a gap year doesn’t need to be a whole year. In fact, many of our gappers fit their gap year travel into a period of just one month.” A further useful resource is Realgap, offering hundreds of activities abroad under 30 days long, including two-week long volunteer programmes in Asia, Africa and South America. “Four, three and even two-week trips are now a big part of what Real Gap Experience and Gap Year for Grown Ups do,” says Jennette Baxter, spokesperson for the website. “In the last year these shorter trips probably accounted for 40-50 per cent of the business, and this is growing all the time.” Their advice is to get involved. “It will certainly give you a taste of adventure, and then you can decide if the big trip is really for you.” Louise Cossey, another student at Nottingham Uni, did her gap year in bite-size pieces, including a five-week project in Uganda with MadVenture. “The project lengths were really good,” she enthuses. “Long enough to settle but not too long you got bored or home sick.” These projects fit neatly into a summer holiday between A-Levels and university, but you do need to have almost £2,000 in your pocket. One downfall of travelling without a gap year is money: “For me earning the money to get there was part of my gap year. I learnt about the value of money and it was a great reward at the end of six months of working,” says Louise. But you do not need to be Mr Moneybags to make the most of holidays. “There are three considerations,” says Oxford Classics undergraduate Dougall Meston. “Time, money and distance.” With the relative effortlessness, speed and low price of travelling today it has never been easier to go where you want. “You don’t need to take a gap year - it is so easy to travel now – we just popped over to Prague and inter-railed for a month for only £300.” Commenting on travelling without a gap year Tom says: “I have travelled during university holidays for four periods of between one and three months, and have had amazing experiences. From climbing Mt Kilimanjaro and going on three safaris in Africa to swimming with dolphins in the Red Sea, elephant riding, bungee jumping, shark fishing and much more in between.” If you are determined and organised, the experiences that you might have missed out on fall into reach. The world really is your oyster. On the other hand, having a gap year on your CV can look great, as long as you have planned well and it shows a good use of your time. When asked if planning was key to her gap year, Louise replied with a resounding yes. “It’s really easy to not apply to uni and get into the trap of never organising your year out, or doing things so last minute that you don’t get the full experience.” Dougall agrees “what was really useful were the Rough Guide books with pre-planned routes for particular times periods, setting out X, Y and Z. We squeezed so much into a very small space of time.” Whether you are looking for a life changing experience or to discover a new part of the world, your options are plenty. “It may be a clich?ut if you want culture then it doesn’t matter if it is only a month,” continues Dougall. “The ease of travelling, coupled with extensive guidebooks, makes short stints of travelling worth it. If you are determined, you can do it.”


Sunday Telegraph, 1 July 2007


'Be grown-up about your gap year.  A return to youth beckons the mature backpacker, but only if adult decisions are made first.'

By Emma Lunn, extract:

'You don't have to be young, free and single to backpack around the world - today's globe-trotting backpackers are just as likely to be stressed-out fiftysomething professionals as they are teenagers.

According to insurer Hiscox, more than a third of 45 to 54-year-olds are considering a so-called "grown-up gap year." Meanwhile, website www.gapyearforgrownups.co.uk says many older people see time off as a chance to reclaim their life - whether to get out of the rat race, take a break before a change of career, experience the gap year their children had or kickstart their retirement.

But unlike school-leavers and graduates, mature "gappers" cannot usually forget about their financial responsibilities back home. Many will have a mortgage, pension and life insurance in place, all of which need to be taken care of in their absence. If you are considering an adventure of a lifetime what are the practicalities you should consider before leaving all your cares behind?'


gapadvice.org letter to the Observer 15 May 2007


Dear Editor

I write to disassociate myself with the article on gap years in The Observer, 13 May 2007. The journalist and I had a conversation on Friday evening prior to publication on the Sunday. I made it quite clear that I did not have evidence to support the claims she was making, regarding reduced numbers, personal safety, environmental impact and mounting debt. Indeed I disagreed with her proposals. We had a general discussion, which has been twisted or embellished to support the arguments put forward by the journalist, making me a mouthpiece for her own views. I did not make the statements attributed to me and do not support the conclusions of the article. I strongly believe that a well-constructed gap year can be an invaluable start to Higher Education and subsequent employment. I am surprised that The Observer has produced such an article.

Yours faithfully
Phil Murray MA FCIPD
Director, gapadvice.org


The Observer 13 May 2007


By Amelia Hilll, extract - 'cash-strapped students turn backs on gap year'

'Travelling has long been an essential part of pre-university life. Now fears about personal safety, environmental impact and mounting debt have cut the numbers taking a year out.' See http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,2078513,00.html for full story.


The Daily Telegraph 3 April 2007

By Matt Barnwell, extract - 'record numbers take time-out from careers'

Record numbers of workers are planning "career break'' sabbaticals, driven by a desire to travel the world and escape the rat race, research revealed yesterday.
Once gap years used to be the preserve of students or the wealthy, but increasingly they are becoming the norm for workers looking for "time out'', according to the survey. Almost one in five British workers - around 5.5 million - are planning to join the ranks of the three million workers who have already taken an extended break from their careers in the past five years. A desire to see the world is the main reason for wanting to get away, with almost half keen to do more travelling, according to research from Direct Line Travel Insurance. A third are looking for a break from the rat race, while one in four complain of feeling "burned out'' by the pressures of modern living.
The report also shows that sabbaticals appear to make sense for businesses, helping with recruitment and staff retention. British workers are increasingly attracted to firms that offer their staff time out. One in four employees works for a company where sabbaticals are a staff perk.
Gap Year for Grown Ups, which provides career break projects for people over 30, said a desire to "put things in perspective'' or to "give something back'' were also among the many reasons for their increasing popularity. "There are lots of reasons people take a career break,'' spokesman Jennette Baxter said. "For some, they have gone straight from university into a job and then when they hit their mid 30s they stop and say: 'I'm not sure I want to be doing this'. "They need time out to think about it. "Some people want a career break to get things in perspective. A lot of people go away and come back and go into a different career. "The other major reason is the change in family circumstances, such as a divorce or they have had children who have left home.'' Even people in their late 50s and 60s are taking career breaks, she said. Of those who book with Gap Year for Grown Ups, the vast majority - 80 per cent - are women.
Africa is the most popular destination, with people keen to do volunteer work in schools and at orphanages. South America is increasingly popular for those who want to combine voluntary work or a project with a "travelling experience'' and sightseeing.
The Government, public sector, finance and insurance industries are leading the way on sabbaticals, with 40 per cent able to take a career break. They are followed by IT and telecomms staff (36 per cent) and medicine/health service (25 per cent). Chris Price, business manager at Direct Line Travel Insurance, said: "Taking an extended break from work used to be the preserve of a privileged few, but now more and more people are taking time out from their careers to travel. "It seems that firms are recognising this desire and are offering sabbaticals as a way of recruiting and retaining the best staff.''


The Independent 28 January 2007


By Sarah Harris, extract - 'grey gap years'

'Do not go gentle into that good night," wrote Dylan Thomas, "Old age should burn and rave at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light". Little did he know that 50 years on his words would be reverberating across every flea-ridden backpackers' hostel from New Zealand to Guatemala, as increasing numbers of over-fifties stubbornly "rage" against the grisly spectre of early retirement and rose-growing to embark upon a twilight gap year.
For anyone under 40, gap years conjure the heady scent of stale sleeping bags, teenage angst, bongos, Buddhas and burning incense. But things have changed: last week Janet Street-Porter, 60, wrote that she's cashing in some of her pension policies to travel and have fun, while Richard Harvey, 56, head of one of the world's top five insurance companies, announced he was quitting his £2m-a-year job to spend 12 months volunteering in Africa with his wife. The Harveys were inspired while visiting their daughter, Jenny, on her gap year in Uganda. They plan to live in a poverty-stricken African village and use their skills to contribute to the community. "But I do have arthritis," says Richard, "there is no way I can sleep on a mud floor for 12 months."
Whether it's burning a silver streak across the globe, digging wells in African villages, or changing career, the over-fifties are refusing to lie down like an extra on the Antiques Roadshow and wait for the geriatric rot to set in.
Sex and travel, it appears, are top of the agenda. An online survey published last October asked 1,500 people over 65 whether they had regrets. The results were surprising. rather than dreaming back to a lost golden era, it found that many older people envy the lifestyles of the young. Seventy per cent wished they had had more sex, 57 per cent would have liked to have travelled more, and 45 per cent wished they had quit their jobs and changed profession.
Known, unflatteringly, to the travel industry as the "denture venturers" or the "Saga louts", there are an estimated 200,000 pre-retirement "gappers" in the UK. They spend around £5,000 per trip, totalling an impressive £1bn per year.


The Guardian 27January 2007


By Benji Lanyado, extract - 'gap year blog'

Jesse Boyce and Edd Crook are grown-up gappers; a growing band of travellers who choose to wait a few years before embarking on that big trip. "At 28, we had both resisted the gap year or post-university jaunt to far-flung places and realised that having worked for over six years since graduation, we would appreciate the whole experience much more than if we had taken the trip at a younger age," says Boyce. Having worked respectively as a graphic designer and a communications manager, Boyce and Crook decided to chronicle their travels with a specially designed online journal, Phileas Blog, complete with caption competitions, "in a nutshell" country guides, a "modes of transport" ticker, and a host of pictures and video clips. Halfway through their trip, and having gained quite a following, we asked them to share their highlights with us.
Fuji Rock, Echigo Yuzawa, Japan
Only two days into our trip, we escaped from Tokyo, jumped off the bullet train and headed for the hills. Our destination was the Fuji Rock festival, where we found ourselves in the company of 50,000 Japanese music lovers in the middle of a cloud-topped valley, with barely a dog-end, scrap of litter or westerner in sight. As an all-male, white group, we were mistaken for a band by many a Fujirocker - a situation we readily used to our advantage. Without hindrance, we swaggered backstage and partied with the real entourage, watching the thousands of Japanese revellers strut their stuff with a true band's-eye view.
* Follow Boyce and Crook's journey at phileasblog.net.


The Daily Telegraph 24 January 2007


By Nicole Martin, extract - 'career crisis for gap year graduates?'

Graduates who take a gap year abroad after university are facing a "career crisis'', according to research released today. Uncertain of the career they want to pursue, they are taking low-paid administration jobs when they return home, says the Training Development Agency for Schools. It found that almost one in four graduates aged between 20 and 30 was struggling to find the right career, with more than half (58 per cent) doing a job they disliked. Having opted for a "quick fix'' job or spent time travelling, one in four said they were now worried about being left behind their contemporaries.
Of those not working in their ideal job, one in five said they had lost their momentum since leaving university and one in seven said they had fallen into their current job. The study, which questioned 1,100 graduates aged under 30, found that a quarter believed that the longer they waited to find a permanent job the more unemployable they became. Unable to find a suitable job, one in eight of those questioned said they took an administration role and one in 14 found a position at a call centre or in a shop.
The latest statistics from Mintel show that 90,000 people aged between 25 and 35 took a gap year in 2005, with the number growing to 230,000 among those aged 18 to 24. Graham Holley, the agency's chief executive, said the research showed graduates were "perplexed by the choices they have''. "But they shouldn't worry about it too much. They should realise that they are in a very luxurious position. They can travel the world and learn life skills which can be valuable in the workplace.'' An agency spokesman said: "Travelling is contributing to the confusion as the experience causes many graduates to rethink their plans when they return home.''
Lee Valls, 28, said he suffered a "career panic attack'' while travelling around Australia after graduating from the University of Teesside. He cut short his gap year and returned home to become a maths teacher in north-east London. "I just felt I needed to get a proper job and get myself sorted,'' he said. "I don't regret taking time off because I learned a lot about myself and came home wiser about the world. "However, it was an anxious time for me and I was extremely worried that I was being left behind.''


The Guardian 9 January 2007


By Jessica Shepherd, extract

Matthew Leopold is quick to point out that he doesn't wear beads or sandals. Nor does he have ethnic prints hanging from the walls of his student digs. And he's never once started a sentence with "When I was in Tasmania. . ." .The 21-year-old Durham University student is confident that his gap-year experience was "authentic" and "unique". "I became part of the community and a member of the family I was staying with - I still am," he says. The second-year geographer from Reading spent his year before university teaching outdoor pursuits to under-12s at the Friends school in north Hobart, Tasmania. The experience cost him and his parents approximately £10,000.

At the same time, Danny McDonnell was putting in the hours to earn money for the geography degree he is now doing at Portsmouth University. McDonnell spent half a year taking blood from patients at St Helier hospital, Surrey, and the other half organising children's holiday camps. The 21-year-old from Epsom, Surrey, made sure the £2,000 he had left at the end lasted his whole first year at university. "We don't have that much money, and my mum and dad wouldn't have had the money to support me through university if I hadn't worked in my gap year. I would have felt guilty taking it from them if they had given it to me," he says.

University researchers dedicated to the academic study of the gap year will meet for the first time tomorrow at their inaugural conference at Surrey University, which will bring together sociologists, educationists and geographers. Their research papers have at least one finding in common: there is a widening gulf between the middle-class and the working-class gap year.

Year abroad

Dr Andrew Jones, head of geography at Birkbeck College, London, describes a typical middle-class teenager's gap year as one spent abroad as a volunteer on a farm, at an African school, or on an environmental conservation project preserving reefs and turtles. Other popular options for the privileged include Camp America and working in the ski industry. The less advantaged are far more likely to earn money by working locally in factories and bars. They may take a school-leaver's job as work experience before they start university, he says. But Jones says it would be unfair to see the experiences of teenagers from poor and rich backgrounds as entirely polarised. "All have some time off from work. Many of the less well-off 18-year-olds are extremely driven and fundraise in order to go on the volunteering programmes that the gap-year industry offers. But, yes, we are finding that there is growing division between what the most and least affluent teenagers are doing." The academics refuse to be drawn on whether tuition fees of £3,000, introduced in England last autumn, will kill off the prospect of a pre-university gap year for the hard-up. But the likelihood is that the gulf between the rich and the poor gap-year experience will widen.

High prices

This is something the international development charity Voluntary Service Overseas reluctantly recognises. It blames the high prices of some of its rivals. "An entire gap-year industry was born a couple of years ago in response to demand from all ages, not just those between school and university," says Abigail Fulbrook, a VSO spokeswoman. "Students from all backgrounds should look for meaningful work which has a long-term gain." Quest, which describes itself as a "development travel company", offers a four-week trip to Malawi building community centres for orphans for £1,465, excluding flights and insurance. Those with more time to travel can go on a three-month expedition to Brazil for £4,920, again excluding flights and insurance. And Venture Company takes gap-year students on an Inca trip for 12 weeks for £4,365. Mike Lamb, education manager at Quest, says the trips his company run can cost thousands of pounds because they provide long-term help in developing countries. "The expense can be easily justified. It should cost the local communities nothing to have these unskilled volunteers staying with them. The cost of the trip ensures this. We are not embarrassed by how much our projects cost. The money is going to the right place."

Academics presenting papers at tomorrow's conference say that, despite the emergence of a working-class gap year, the majority of those taking a year off between school and university are from middle-class backgrounds. Tara Duncan, managing editor for journals at the Royal Geographic Society, says: "Unfortunately our research shows the gap year is still a middle-class phenomenon - and a white, rather than ethnic minority, one at that. But that is changing. Volunteering organisations are targeting a wider market and the growing numbers of gappers from south-east Asia will have a knock-on effect on ethnic minorities in the UK."

Andy King, an associate lecturer in sociology at Surrey University, hopes a book will come out of the papers being presented at the conference, which he is organising. "It's high time academics actually met to discuss their body of work in this area." He estimates that the number of academics whose research looks, in some way, at the gap year has doubled in the past few years, to roughly 15 in the UK. Research on gap years is attractive to academics interested in young people's transition into adulthood and the development of social skills. It also gets the attention of experts on travel, tourism and education. Duncan believes the growing interest stems partly from the fact that many of the field's researchers wanted to write about and discuss their own gap years.

Dr Kate Simpson, a visiting fellow in geography at the University of Newcastle, describes their work as "a classic case of academics responding to a popular phenomenon". Yet there is a demand for their research. Apart from a general public interest in gap years, graduate recruiters are keen to know whether - and how - a bungee jump in South Africa translates into a transferable skill in the workplace.

Taking a gap year between school and university (and at other times as well) is becoming increasingly common, the academics will say tomorrow. Jones says that, unfortunately, as is often the case with new research topics, precise statistics do not exist. But a study he led for the Department for Education and Skills in 2004 leads him to estimate that 50,000 teenagers will defer university this year, or apply later, so that they can take a gap year. A few years ago, he says, the figure was closer to 30,000. A new popular option is to take a catering course in Italy. But bar work in Australia, travelling in South America, fruit picking and environmental conservation projects are still favourites.


But beware, the researchers say, gap years are addictive. "There are increasing numbers of people who are taking three gap years: one after A-levels, another after university and a third a couple of years into their careers," says Duncan. Some people argue a gap year can be pointless. "We give young people a lot of kudos for travelling to shanty towns, but what do they actually learn?" Simpson says. "Just seeing something doesn't actually teach them about it. It just shows them that the world is very diverse."

But that is precisely what makes some admissions tutors favour gap-year returnees as their students. Peter Lewis, admissions tutor for English and drama at Loughborough University, might give a student who misses their grades another chance if they have taken a gap year. "Students who have taken gap years have gone through the jolly japes of puberty when they start university. They understand that the world is different in different places and they appreciate things more because of that," he says. "The first thing I look at is their personal profile. It is very important for me to see what they say they have done, or are going to do, in a gap year. Are they going to write a journal, for example? "If a youngster has only just missed their grades and has taken a gap year, I might interview them. But not if they have been lying on the beach or going surfing for the year. That does nothing much for anyone - except improve their tan."


The Evening Standard 9 November 2006


Extract: 'School leavers should take seriously a new poll that shows that a university degree is no longer enough to get you the job you want. A gap year, however, may help. The YouGov poll, commissioned by volunteering organisation GVI, shows that though 58 per cent of managers agreed that "no degree adequately prepares a person for the world of work", 64 per cent said gap years would help prepare people to develop crucial work skills before they enter into their career.'


The Daily Mail 7 November 2006


'gap year emails'
When intrepid teenagers set off to explore the deepest, darkest and most dangerous parts of the world during their gap years, it is a nail-biting time for their worried parents. But, mothers and fathers console themselves, at least their little gapper can send reassuring e-mails home. However, as a hilarious new book reveals, the messages they send, describing the scrapes they have got into, can have the opposite effect.
'Hi Dad. Well, I got mugged again, trying to get across eight lines of traffic from Cinelandia to the Modern Art Museum in the pouring rain. He did have a knife, but he wasn't particularly threatening, and he let me open my wallet and give him the notes, rather than taking everything, which would have been a pain. It's OK. I'm used to it now. So long, David'
Extracted from 'Don't Tell Mum': Hair-Raising Messages Home From Gap-Year Travellers by Simon Hoggart and Emily Monk, published by Atlantic Books at £9.99. © 2006, Simon Hoggart and Emily Monk.


The Times 4 November 2006


By: Carol Lewis, Career Editor, extract.
Going abroad for extended periods is a good idea, not least because holidays, like gin, are best enjoyed long and leisurely. A lengthy break allows you to go to places too remote to reach in the average two-week break. It also gives you a chance to spend time really exploring a country, its people and its culture.
A survey of students and graduates published earlier this year by the website Milkround (www.milkround.com) indicated that 40 per cent of travellers go on a gap year to see and experience different ways of life. This is hardly a revelation, but what is more surprising is that 19 per cent of those surveyed said that they were taking a gap year to gain transferable skills and experience. The skills these global travellers wanted to learn included new languages, relevant career skills, practical skills and teaching qualifications.
Returning gap-year travellers reported that their expectations had been met. They had improved their confidence, adaptability, self-reliance, independence, motivation and flexibility -the so-called "soft" skills. They also said that they had better organisational, people, project management and presentation skills.
And, wait for this, "experience of different business models, different ways of doing things and international contacts".
If these sound less like laid-back wanderers and more like fully fledged corporate employees, that is because the world is becoming increasingly business savvy and global in outlook. Young travellers want to use their trips to boost their CVs and corporations are keen to recruit the confident, multilingual and motivated bright young things that return. Big business has also realised that it needs to use travel as a way of attracting and keeping talented employees of all ages -we want gaps of different sizes and different shapes throughout our careers now. But don't forget your own needs. Oliver James (page 6) makes a good case for not making gap plans with only your CV and future employers in mind.
Gap travel is no longer a fringe activity. From three months working in an Aids orphanage to a year surfing in South Africa, a spell away can benefit everyone, whether they are single budding entrepreneurs or families of five, career starters or retirees. It is time for all of us to write our own personal business case for a trip away.


The Telegraph 16 August 2006


'Gap year students accused of being charity tourists who do little good. Sending gap year students to Third World 'is a form of colonialism'.
By Richard Alleyne, extract.
Gap year students who take their skills to developing nations may be doing more harm than good, a volunteer organisation said yesterday. A Voluntary Service Overseas spokesman said many "year out'' programmes were no more than a form of new colonialism in which rich westerners indulged in a form of "charity tourism''. Not only are the trips the source of dinner party stories of questionable interest, they could actually leave their destinations in a worse state than before they arrived. The gap year has become a rite of passage as young people seek adventure and life-changing experiences in developing nations in Africa, Asia or South America. It is seen as a chance to broaden their minds and learn about other cultures while at the same time making a positive contribution to their host nation.
A flourishing industry has grown out of the demand with dozens of organisations acting as suppliers of work placements and voluntary projects. But as the sector has developed, many schemes have become biased towards the enjoyment of their volunteers and less about helping the host communities, says Judith Brodie, a VSO director.
"Some gap year providers seem to pay little attention to whether young people are making any long-term difference to the communities they are working in,'' she said.
"There seems to be a colonial attitude whereby it is assumed that just because a young person is from the UK they will benefit their host community.''
Abbie Fulbrook, a spokesman, added: "We would not expect young untrained people to come here and teach our children. So why do we send untrained people to other countries to teach English? Volunteers need to question whether what they are doing is of any use to the country they are travelling to. Should, for example, a local be doing that job instead? "We don't want to curb anyone's enthusiasm. People personally gain a lot from gap years but they have to be aware that whatever they do has an impact on the country they go to.'' The VSO cites several cases in which students have complained about the lack of voluntary work they perform.
Catherine Harrington, 24, went to Costa Rica with the Inter-cultural Youth Exchange (ICYE) in 2000, when she was 18. When she arrived, Miss Harrington found no volunteer work had been set up and she had no host family. She claims the family she was eventually sent to received none of the money she paid to the organisation. After a fortnight she was given the task of translating UN documents - despite speaking almost no Spanish. Looking back, she concludes that she was "not at all useful to Costa Rica''.
She said: "Gap years are just hedonistic and those who think they can do some good really can't. You're so young. I never thought I could actually offer that much.'' She says it is "naive'' of teenagers to believe they can make a difference abroad.
Another woman paid to go to Malaysia to teach English at a local primary school only to find it was closed for the entirety of her stay because it was the summer holidays. Another young volunteer arranged to teach English at a rural primary school in Costa Rica only to find the locals spoke an indecipherable dialect of Spanish. She abandoned the scheme and spent the rest of her time at the tour operator's office. Ms Brodie said that in the worst case scenarios students could be a drain on local resources.
The VSO, which mainly places older more skilled volunteers, avoided this by ensuring that volunteers worked in a mutually co-operative way with communities. But Richard Oliver, the chief executive of the Year Out Group which represents 38 organisations that send 30,000 gap year students to more than 80 countries, rejected the claims. "This is a competitive and commercial business,'' he said. "But the countries our members send volunteers to are very happy to have them.'' "I would also accept that in the short time in which an individual is in the country the benefit is mainly to the volunteer. But the procession of volunteers is very beneficial to the country.''


The Times 15 August 2006


'Chill out; Why gap years are not the new colonialism.'
We report today on a young man who went to Calcutta to help to feed homeless children, only to discover that the gentleman running the scheme ex-pected the children to fend for themselves from Friday evening to Monday morning because he preferred not to work at weekends. We also report on a young woman who signed up for a gap-year project to survey an endangered reef, but found when she got there that it had already been surveyed -a mere 200 times.
What shattered hopes! What cruelly betrayed idealism! What useful lessons in life.
These two self-styled ambassadors of British goodwill are to be admired for their selflessness; for seeking to "contribute", as the brochures put it, to less fortunate people and supposedly blighted places during those special, unrepeatable months between school and university when time can seem to pause and horizons retreat to shimmering infinity. But whatever were they thinking? Anyone who signs up -and pays -for a prepackaged gap-year "project" immediately becomes less a saviour of the world than a well-intentioned customer.
Attitudes to gap years risk becoming "colonial", according to Voluntary Service Overseas. This is fatuous. Even capitalists can agree that colonialism was often driven more by profit than by altriusm. But no less fatuous is VSO's exhortation to "gap-year providers" to "raise their game". The only true gap-year provider is the 19-year-old who decides to take one. He or she should bin the brochures, buy a backpack and seek enlightenment from spontaneous adventure. This is the sort that no one else has organised, but from which everyone can profit.

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