How a gap year eases the pain of admission

August 25, 1995

University is no longer the easy life it once was, says Jonathan Whitehead. A year in between would help. The suffering associated with the university admissions system as it stands extends beyond parents and prospective students. Anyone who has anything to do with admissions, accommodation departments or welfare offices will have to deploy all their personal skills over this period, not least in dealing with over-protective parents.

What we need is either a longer gap between A-level results and the start of term or a reduction in the amount that needs to be done during that period. Unfortunately, the only recent suggestion to impact upon the whole issue of the admissions procedure will surely make the situation worse.

The proposal to bring forward the start of the academic year means that in order to cram in a whole semester before Christmas, students, parents and higher education staff could face a gap of up to a month shorter.

Leaving aside other changes to the academic year as being fraught with difficulties, a simple way to reduce the summer bottleneck would be substantially to increase the number of 18-year-old students who opt for deferred entry. Having a year in which to make those all important decisions and phone calls rather than a few panic-stricken days in August makes so much sense for both students and staff.

Of course, there has always been a debate about taking a year off, but the traditional arguments in favour are even stronger now. Going to university is no longer the easy life it once was.

School-leavers would be far better equipped for the modern, debt-ridden student life if they were a year older and maturer and had a wider experience of the world outside their schools and Saturday jobs. Also, taking a year off allows someone to build up savings which could then make all the difference between being just strapped for cash and actually going hungry.

Unfortunately, taking a year off is often seen as a thoroughly middle-class experience. It would take a big cultural shift to change this image but it is surely worth the effort. If universities, schools, colleges and careers advisers were to promote taking a year-off as the "normal" route from A levels to higher education, it would quickly become seen as an intrinsic part of the university package.

Alongside such a cultural shift, there would also be a need for incentives. Assuming that in the not-too-distant future we will have some kind of student/graduate contribution scheme for higher education, then earnings accrued in the year off could be used to pay in advance some of the eventual debt the graduate will owe, perhaps also attracting a discount. Effectively, students could choose between banking their earnings to spend during their studies or using them as a pre-payment for their inevitable higher education debts.

Combining financial incentives with developmental ones, existing company sponsorship schemes could be extended. Firms could be encouraged to offer, say, six months' employment during a student's year off as part of the sponsorship package.

This would have an effect on a student's finances as well as giving him/her experience of the world of work. Add in pre-degree training schemes in information technology, time management and other study skills and the attractions of a year off become even clearer.

In a simple and relatively cheap way, the admissions process can be dramatically improved with attendant benefits for students, staff and parents, and it does not need legislation nor a committee of the great and the good!

Jonathan Whitehead is research officer for the Northern and Northern Ireland region of the Association of University Teachers. The views expressed are his own.

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