Education Quandary

'If our son starts university in 2005, we won't have to pay top-up fees. But he says he needs a gap year to make the most of going to university. Is he right?'
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Hilary's advice

Hilary's advice

One of the things people always say about gap years is that they allow school-leavers to gain maturity, and it certainly sounds as though your son could do with some of that. Gap years are, without doubt, great. Those who take them, love them, and why wouldn't they? A year of no commitments or pressures, a chance to travel and meet new people, with perhaps a little light do-gooding on the side... Everyone could use one of those.

But no one, young or old, has a God-given right to spend six months bussing around Australia, or teaching Tanzanian six-year-olds to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star", and your son needs to face this fact. It is rotten luck that he has been caught in a funding change like this, but he now needs to get on and deal with it.

If he wants a gap year, fine. Let him work for it and pay for it, while also coming to some agreement with you about how he intends to make the maximum possible contribution to the extra university fees he is going to incur in the process. Will he work night and day to put extra money in the bank before he goes off travelling? Will he give up his university summers to bankrolling his pre-university fun? Will he get a term-time job, or accumulate debt that he will have to pay off when he starts working?

Like most parents, you probably want to ease this financial burden as much as you can. But don't, whatever you do, simply shrug and give in to all his plans. He might want a gap year, but he doesn't need one, and a big part of his maturing process will be learning to take responsibility for his own decisions. If, with the financial blinkers off, he decides that he does still want a gap year, then he may well plan it more carefully and savour it more fully, than gappies who simply bank Daddy's cheque and head for the beach. If that is the case, it may be worth it.

Readers' advice

If your son wants to grow up a bit, maybe he should take responsibility for the cost of his university education. He can then make his own mind up about the value of a gap year. I went to university immediately after school and have never regretted not taking a gap year. I worked during the holidays to top up my grant and loan, and travelled after finishing university.

Stephanie Carter, Pemberton, Greater Manchester

I wanted to travel after I finished school in 1961, when it was not usual to have a gap year. I was persuaded to continue my studies and travel the world later. I never did.

If your son does not feel ready for university, that's the best reason for not going. Encourage him to see something of the world, and decide what it is he really wants to do. If he decides to do something other than university you might save yourself thousands of pounds - who knows?

Mary North, Wirksworth, Derbyshire

As a student who took a gap year working in Australia, I'm annoyed by the idea that backpackers are middle class spongers. I have a better grasp of the value of money and many more life skills than my peers who didn't take a year out.

Jennifer Day, Davenham, Cheshire

Next week's quandary

'The staffroom at the school I moved to this year is disgusting - crowded, chaotic and dirty. Only teachers would put up with these working conditions. Everyone hates it, but no one has time to do anything about it. We've complained to the head, but he doesn't listen. What can we do?'

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 29 March, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser