The year of living sensibly

Will young people leaving school in 2005 forsake their gap years because of top-up fees? Lucy Hodges weighs the evidence
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The Independent Online

Margaret Coffey is one of a growing army of parents who have persuaded their children not to take gap years in 2005. Ms Coffey's daughter, Ella, would love to take a year off between school and university, travelling to India and Cambodia like her older sister did. But with top-up fees due to arrive in the following year - 2006 - a gap year looks financially reckless. "We think a gap year is a very good idea," says Ms Coffey. "It's a useful maturing experience. But, given the huge financial difference it will make - the difference between roughly £3,000 for fees under today's arrangements and £9,000 in the future - we think it would not be wise." Ms Coffey is not alone in her decision. Anecdotal evidence suggests that substantial numbers of middle-income parents are taking the same line, on the grounds that their offspring will have to pay the new fees of £3,000 a year in 2006 but will not qualify for grants or bursaries.

Margaret Coffey is one of a growing army of parents who have persuaded their children not to take gap years in 2005. Ms Coffey's daughter, Ella, would love to take a year off between school and university, travelling to India and Cambodia like her older sister did. But with top-up fees due to arrive in the following year - 2006 - a gap year looks financially reckless. "We think a gap year is a very good idea," says Ms Coffey. "It's a useful maturing experience. But, given the huge financial difference it will make - the difference between roughly £3,000 for fees under today's arrangements and £9,000 in the future - we think it would not be wise." Ms Coffey is not alone in her decision. Anecdotal evidence suggests that substantial numbers of middle-income parents are taking the same line, on the grounds that their offspring will have to pay the new fees of £3,000 a year in 2006 but will not qualify for grants or bursaries.

Some estimates put the extra numbers applying for university places in 2005 at 100,000 students or more. That could mean even more intense competition for university entry in the popular subjects of English, history and law. Cambridge is so concerned that it has written to the Government. "We are worried because the majority of the kids we have seen at open days who would in past years have taken a gap year, have decided not to," says Dr Geoff Parks, director of admissions for the Cambridge colleges. "About 20 per cent of the students Cambridge admits take a gap year. If that thinking [not to take a gap year] is carried through to the point of application, the inevitable consequence is that there will be more pressure on places in 2005."

Both Ms Coffey and the University of Cambridge would like the Government to introduce a concession for gap-year students in 2005, as it did for those in 1997 when the flat-rate tuition fee was being brought in. At that time, students taking a year out were able to enter university the following year on the same terms and conditions as their classmates who went straight into higher education - and that meant they didn't pay the £1,000 fee.

"The key thing is the interests of prospective students," says Dr Parks. "If things go as we fear, there will be a significant number of students who would have got places at Cambridge in a normal year but won't in 2005 because of the competition. That year, in turn, will be followed by a year when the pressure will significantly ease off."

The University of York is also concerned. It is a popular university with good ratings, receiving 20,000 applications for 1,900 places each year. It has estimated that the majority of pupils in the upper sixth won't be taking a gap year in 2005. "If only half don't have a gap year, we could have an increase of 10 per cent in applications, which will be very difficult to respond to by taking 10 per cent more students," says Connie Cullen, York's director of admissions. "We will inevitably be forced to be more selective."

The Liberal Democrats have been lobbying hard for a concession - so far without success. An amendment tabled to the higher education bill was defeated in committee stage. But Phil Willis, education spokesman for the party, is undaunted. Yesterday, the Lib Dems put down another amendment in the Lords. "This is a real problem," says Willis. "Five to 10 years ago, gap years were the province of rich kids. But now students are taking gap years to raise money to go to university."

The Conservatives have been supporting the amendment on the grounds that, without a concession, the gap-year market will collapse in 2005. "We have had a lot of representations from gap-year organisations," says Charles Hendry, the shadow minister for young people, adding: "We are very sorry that ministers have refused to consider a concession." Mandy Telford, the president of the National Union of Students, agrees. A concession is the least the Government can do, she says.

The Government's line is that the situation in 2005 is very different from that which faced students in 1997. Then, the Government decided to introduce up-front annual fees of £1,000 very late in the day, after students had made their decisions about a gap year. Under those circumstances, it was unfair to force them to pay the new tuition fees.

Top-up fees, by contrast, have been in the pipeline for a long time. By the time they arrive, students will have had three years to digest their impact, according to a spokesman. Moreover, a lot of students will be better off. Those from poorer backgrounds will have the first £1,100 of their fees paid; they will also receive a grant and a bursary from the university. So, they will be in a better position than they are under the current arrangements.

Even those who come from comfortably off families will be better off in the sense that they will not be paying upfront fees. The top-up fee is paid after graduation, and only once a person is earning £15,000 a year. "So there are no plans to offer any exceptional deals to students in 2005," says a Government spokesman.

Mothers such as Ms Coffey are fully aware of the details of the new arrangements; in fact, she agrees with the Government's policy, believing the current plans for top-up fees make sense. These are the kind of parents who help their offspring with their university costs to ensure their debts are kept to a minimum. So, faced with the choice of an upfront fee of £3,000 and a post-hoc fee of £9,000, they are clear which is best, particularly as they are prepared to help their children have a gap year after university.

However, Richard Oliver of the Year Out Group, says the result of avoiding a gap year will be an increase in the difficulty of getting into university in 2005. He urges young people to take a gap year on the grounds that it will make them more employable and that they won't have to pay back the increased fees until after graduation.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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