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21 August 2000

Every parent’s worst nightmare

More and more students are taking a gap year to travel and experience the exotic "other". Is it wort

By Duncan Parrish

There is a scene at the beginning of Alex Garland’s back-packing novel The Beach in which the narrator, Richard, is standing at the top of a cliff on a remote island in south-east Asia, gathering the strength to make his leap into the beautiful jungle pool beneath him – this is the only way to reach the hidden beach beyond.

This fictional device neatly captures the spirit of young people travelling in their gap year between leaving school and starting university: the exhilaration of physical risk; the challenge of the unknown in a strange and alluring new world; the desire to sever all ties with the past. The murder of Kirsty Jones, a young Welsh backpacker in a hostel in Thailand, and the arson attack in Australia, in which 15 travellers died, have focused public concern on the risks taken by young people while travelling the world – and the hedonistic lifestyle that many choose to live.

A new report published by the Gap Year Company, an organisation that offers advice to students wishing to travel, examines this rite of passage. Almost one in five students now defer entrance to university by a year in order to travel or for non-academic work. For several independent schools, that figure approaches one in two, giving rise to the wry observation that the developing world now serves as “a finishing school for the middle classes”. More than 200,000 British travellers under the age of 26 take part in the annual exodus – if one includes, as the report does, those university graduates who take time off before entering the workforce.

The picture that emerges from this study threatens to destroy the reputation of the “year off” that is maintained by many, including most university admissions tutors and recruitment consultants: the year abroad spent in selfless public service, teaching English, caring for the blind or building bridges (both physically and metaphorically). Indeed, according to the report, fewer than 10 per cent of students take part in any structured or voluntary placement – the figure is as low as 5 per cent for the traditional gap-year students between school and university. The majority spend time alternating between earning money and backpacking along the new hippy trails – ribbons of hedonism that often, by happy coincidence, weave their way through the world’s major drug- producing regions: from Thailand through Indonesia to Australia; across the lakes and planes of east and southern Africa; along the Andes to central America.

Leila Terry has just returned from travelling in Vietnam, a budding new offshoot of the main south-east Asian trail. “Everybody goes to Thailand, so I thought I’d try to catch ‘Nam before it changed too much. I just wanted to travel, to see something new. You miss out on so much if you are tied into a structured position in some workplace.”

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This contemporary attitude to the gap year as a work-free period gives rise to parental fears – most recently fanned by the murders in Thailand and Australia – of sordid hostels, drugs for breakfast, and shifty natives in countries seeping with violence. In fact, the statistics don’t bear out these parental nightmares: only 12 young British backpackers have been murdered since 1994, a rate not substantially higher than that of their contemporaries back home in the UK (the incidence is higher for those in their late twenties, but this is largely due to their dangerous destinations), and homicide is unheard of for travellers aged 21 or under.

Indeed, Terry is unperturbed by the summer’s horror stories: “I never really felt under threat. I can’t imagine it putting me or anyone else off.”

Organisations such as VSO or Students’ Partnership Worldwide, which arrange structured gap years, are just as popular as ever. However, the total number of young people taking a year out has grown so quickly in the past few years that the sterling ethos of “service” that was once an integral part of the gap year has been diluted. In addition, many of the companies that find placements for students abroad are so poorly run that their recruits could find themselves stranded in a school in Russia without official responsibilities or adequate support; or in a mental institution in South Africa without any training.

Despite these disaster stories, and despite the prevalence of travel-only gap years, employers and admissions tutors at universities continue to see the whole experience as a positive one. It ensures that students learn to face adversity and take responsibility. Gap-year students, claim the recruitment consultants and academics quoted in the report, are “more content”, “better able to make a decision”, less likely to drop out of a course, and they frequently show “problem-solving skills”.

Even the most uninspired journey from Bangkok to Sydney offers a character-building opportunity that will, in turn, distinguish the successful student and employee from the run-of-the-mill. The exposure to the challenges of living far from home teaches the student about responsibilities, the need for self-control, as well as about risk-taking – crucial skills for survival in the City or Fleet Street.

The students themselves enthuse about the cultures experienced, the people met, their incredible feats of derring- do. Their pride is only slightly dent- ed when none of their fellow students shows the slightest interest in where they went for their gap year, because they have heard a thousand identical stories – which they don’t believe anyway. The final lesson is always humility.

Ten facts about gap years

It is estimated that . . .

  • 50,000, or one in five, students take a gap year before entering university.
  • 35,000 are state school leavers, while 15,000 come from independent schools.
  • Only 10,000 of the 200,000 people aged 26 and under who take gap years embark on a structured placement.
  • More than half of all school leavers who take gap years remain in Europe, while one in ten visits central or South America.
  • Australia is the most popular destination among older travellers, with one-fifth spending most of their time there and a quarter visiting Australasia exclusively.
  • The least popular destination is Africa.
  • Asia is popular among all age groups. On average, 14 per cent of British travellers visit Far Eastern destinations.
  • 70 per cent of those returning from trips say that they would go again.
  • Two-thirds claim that their gap-year experience has changed them.
  • One-third of people taking a gap year travel alone, and nearly half set off with just one companion; 20 per cent of backpackers do not return with the person they left with.
  • £2,000 is the average amount spent on a six-month trip. The biggest problem for those wishing to take a gap year is raising enough money; the second-biggest problem is securing a visa.
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