Gap years in decline as university fees rise

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The Independent Online

Gap-year companies are experiencing a drop in the number of school-leavers applying for places, as increased tuition fees next year makes it more prudent for them to go to university.

Many are opting to forgo the chance of spending a carefree year abroad in favour of beating the fees rises of up to £9,000 a year, which come into effect in September 2012. However, the effect on gap-year companies is likely to be mitigated by an influx of older graduates, who have searched for jobs in vain and are now turning to volunteering to boost their CVs.

Projects Abroad, which places around 8,000 volunteers a year, said it had noticed a 10 per cent drop in applications in February. Peter Slowe, its founder and director, said: "Our applications from the UK were about the same in January but a little bit down for the first time in February." He added that some smaller operators were facing real difficulties as a result of the fall in the number of school-leavers applying – although none had yet been forced into administration.

"I think it's a real crying shame," he said. "This is the only time in their lives they can take off with their parents approving, and their teachers approving. It is something of intrinsic value and it is something that has been completely screwed up by this policy of tuition fees."

When top-up fees were first introduced by Labour in 2006, a waiver was introduced, exempting those who had taken a gap year in 2005. "I wish they'd do the same again," Mr Slowe said.

Not all gap-year providers are experiencing the same problem. Raleigh, another major player in the market, said iapplications from school leavers soared by 50 per cent this year. But Rachel Collinson, a spokeswoman for the company, said she understood that some providers had experienced a decline.

An increasingly popular option is the "mini-gap", which can be laid on for volunteers during the summer holidays. "We have seen about a 20 per cent increase in the number of undergraduates taking a mini-break," Ms Collinson said. "They have been told it's a tough market and it's another thing they can do while at university to add to their CV." She added that there had been an 80 per cent increase in graduates applying for gap years.

Alice Baines of The Leap, which provides around 400 placements at projects in Africa, Asia and South America, said: "It is early days yet. So far we're having the same number [of applications] as we would normally anticipate – but we may get a lull between April and July as people are waiting to see what happens in their A-levels.

"There may well be a rush of people between August and November because a lot of people hoping to go to university may well be disappointed."

Universities are bracing themselves for a record number of applications this summer, but many expect a repeat of last autumn, when more than 200,000 applicants ended up without a place.

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