Julian Knight: An accidental gap year could be just what students need

Thousands of students are going to find themselves taking what I call an "accidental gap year"; namely they were set to go to university but there was no place for them this year.

Although this will mean that they will pay the ridiculous fees universities want to charge their students, it could be a blessing.

One of the big regrets of my life was not taking a gap year. I'd studied very hard for my A-levels, worked a job and looked after a relative; I didn't know it then but I was exhausted. A year working and doing some travelling would have done me the world of good, broadened my mind and allowed me to mature. It may also have led to a change of course and university – both of my choices were wrong in retrospect.

Although I've praised the gap year, it does seem terribly wrong that so many students will end up paying fees treble those levied this year. Just because universities ask for the money it shouldn't mean they get it. What is wrong, for instance, with doing two-year degrees – mine could have easily been condensed into that period of time – or more people studying remotely, reducing the need for lecturers and expensive facilities?

The university system seems to be run for the benefit of the staff and politicians – who invariably get cushy retirement sinecures – rather than the students. Perhaps many of those taking their accidental gap year will come to this conclusion too and do something else. Whatever happens, let's hope they value this 12-month hiatus. It could put them in better stead than those who pile into university on the conveyor belt from school.

Basic accounts

After last week's comment on the policies of RBS and Lloyds to bar their basic bank account customers from using the ATMs of other banks because it cost them a little money, I have had quite a lot of responses.

First, from readers saying how disgraceful it is for part-nationalised banks to treat often vulnerable consumers so badly, but also from a friendly PR officer at Lloyds. The PR politely pointed out that its customers had the option of taking cashback in shops as well as using the ATMs in its extensive branch network.

I'm afraid the argument doesn't wash. The fact is that to get cashback you have to make a purchase and that could penalise the customer. And not everyone remembers to do it. I have often been at the till and had my card handed back and suddenly thought cashback would be useful. Cashback should be supplementary, not a replacement for ATM access.

On the issue of basic accounts, campaigners are missing a trick. Instead of whingeing at the banks for rolling up the services they offer poorer customers, why don't they argue for an expansion? The truth is that banks never wanted basic bank accounts; they'd rather not deal with the poor or vulnerable. They have put every barrier they could think of in the way of people opening accounts, and I would bet that the number of account holders who have been migrated to fully fledged accounts is minuscule.

Basic accounts could be used to solve some of the current financial woes of those on a low income. The banks at present resolutely refuse to attach an overdraft to a basic account. This means that account holders who suffer short-term cash flow problems often have to visit the pawnbroker, payday loan firm or a local loan shark.

Why not after six months of accounts being opened give all basic account holders an automatic £100 interest-free buffer zone? After, say, a year, people who have kept their accounts in good order should be automatically migrated to a standard current account unless they don't want to. A pipe dream?

Well, it can all be done through changes to the banking code and perhaps a little shaming by the Treasury Select Committee. Perhaps instead of attempting to protect the interests of IFAs who have been rolling in often ill-gotten commission for years, they ought to get on the side of the poor.

Tax evasion

For too long the very wealthy in this country have been able to shelter their money in Switzerland free of paying their fair share. So, for me, last week's agreement between the UK and Switzerland that its banks will hand over 34 per cent of monies held by Britons in Swiss bank accounts was welcome, as was the £5bn it will bring.

There are some who suggest that this is a soft option, that somehow this is letting potentially dubious individuals get away with tax evasion. But think of the alternative. The UK tax authorities, already massively overstretched, have to plough through thousands of names of Swiss account holders, identifying those who are worth bring to book.

And it doesn't end there: how are they supposed to get a conviction knowing that the wealthy defendants will be lawyered up to the eyeballs and complex tax affairs have to be understood by a jury? Complex financial cases brought by the Serious Fraud Office have collapsed with expensive regularity. The agreement with the Swiss could save us all this and bring in much-needed revenue.

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