According to UCAS, in 2012, over 24,000 British university students deferred their application until 2013. This is almost double the figure for the previous year (around 13,000). With jacked-up course fees and worrying levels of graduate unemployment, more and more school-leavers are leaving their studies behind for a year and heading for the airport instead.
Photo Credit: hideaki hamada
Most of us recognise the typical ‘gap yah’ student in the viral YouTube video: that sixth former we all know who comes back after a year in Bali with a tan, a tattoo and an irritating sense of self-importance. BBC Four’s comedy Cuckoo followed the trials of a father whose daughter returns from her gap year with a hippie husband. Clearly, gap years have become the source of many a joke. But they’re no new concept: young people have been ‘discovering themselves’ overseas since the 1960s.
But back to the present day, who’s taking gap years, and where are they going? A 2007 study by GapAdvice.org suggest that there are more female travellers than male, and that most (around 70%) are aged between 20 and 25. The most popular destinations are Latin America, Africa and Asia, whilst the main motivations for travel are volunteering, exploration and working or studying abroad.
On the other hand, one of the most common obstacles for would-be gap year students is the cost. Flights, accommodation, food (and fun!) all rack up an impressive bill, putting students in a difficult situation not only during their trip but when they return and university asks them for £9,000 a year plus living expenses.
Fortunately, gap year companies understand this and many offer work opportunities so you can earn your stay abroad. Here are some ideas to get you started:
3 gap year ideas that pay for themselves
TEFL – Teach English as a Foreign Language
It might be tough to get a job in the UK at the moment, but as an English speaker abroad, you are automatically in high demand. Schools around the world, particularly in Asia, offer British students the chance to assist in their classrooms for anything from 2 weeks to 6 months. Not only will you make pocket money (and in some cases you will be provided with free accommodation), but you will be immersed in the language and culture of your host country. You may even discover a passion for teaching that travels home with you. Oh, and don’t worry if you can’t speak Mandarin – the goal of your placement is to speak with the students in as much English as possible – though don’t be surprised if you pick up a surprising amount of their language too.
Are you a fitness fanatic? Are you handy with a map and compass? Do you ooze confidence? If so, you could land yourself a position as an expedition leader with World Challenge anywhere from the Swiss Alps to the deserts of Oman. These roles of high responsibility are aimed at Outdoor Education students, particularly those with a Mountain Leader (ML) qualification or equivalent. The work is likely to be seasonal but provides a spring board for more permanent employment once you return. But what’s for certain is that you will get to experience some the earth’s most stunning natural landscapes in a way that no TV documentary can reproduce.
Fruit picking in Australia
If you are prepared to get your hands dirty in Australian farms and orchards, you can put a dent in the cost of your stay. Excluding periods of drought (check before you book your trip), Australian farmers produce more fruit than they can harvest alone, and a helping hand from a visitor is always welcome. It is easy and simple to get same-day work fruit picking, and you can do it for as long – or short – a time as you want. In many cases, Australian backpackers’ hostels will help you to find work, and may even drive you there in the morning! If you are worried about the heat there are other opportunities outside the field, for example packing the sheds where the fruit is stored. Use the Harvest Trail to find out when and where the fruit comes to season in different places across the continent.
If you decide to go on a gap year, play it safe and travel in a group, never alone. Bring a reliable phone with you that is set up to make and receive international calls, and ensure someone always knows where you are. Keep your valuables out of sight. Needless to say, make sure you arrange any vaccinations (e.g. malaria) before you travel and that you have air-tight insurance in place in case something goes wrong.
In terms of luggage, travel company World Walks recommends packing light and to ‘relish the unexpected’. On a practical front, items such as sun cream and mosquito repellent and First Aid kit have an awkward habit of evading your suitcase, so keep your mum happy and make sure to pack them first.
But enough of the sensible stuff. Wherever you go, enjoy being part of a vibrant and growing community of gap year students and, while you might not save the world, you will at least see more of it.
Victoria Jones is a freelance travel writer who works alongside World Walks international walking tour company.