The gap widens

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Students are turning their backs on university in favour of travelling. Jeremy Gates reports on the gap year revival

Tour operators expect many students to make a late decision to go travelling before university, as official figures show a sharp drop in the numbers of students starting new courses.

Dr Peter Slowe, director of Projects Abroad, says: “The record number of A-level passes has resulted in 700,000 students seeking only 480,000 university places this summer.

“Coupled with considerable increases in university fees in 2012 and massive graduate unemployment, volunteering for philanthropic projects abroad becomes an attractive option.”

Carl Burrows, sales director at Explore Worldwide, adds: “There are things going on in the education system which mean the number of students not reaching university is higher than expected.

“We’ve found growing numbers are deciding to sit this year out of education and are keen to add useful life experience to CVs instead.”

Burrows says that south-east Asia and South America are becoming focal points for “gappers”, with many slotting group tours together, and spending a few days by themselves in different cities in between.

Slowe says: “Many young people see volunteering in the Third World as an excellent way to step off the educational treadmill and broaden their outlook, life skills and general education while enriching the lives of others.

“Students return from volunteer placements more mature and more confident, and ready to tackle university studies.”

Projects Abroad has sent more than 41,000 volunteers to 27 countries since its launch in 1992. Last year it put around 8,000 volunteers on projects and expects a rise of at least 10 per cent for 2012/13.

Recent research by travel insurer Essential Travel suggests that fears of student debts might encourage many students to take a “gap quarter” rather than a gap year: some 70% of 18 to 20-year-olds plan to travel for just three to six months.

They also see gap year travel as a time to intern, volunteer or generally improve their CV – that’s the view of 62% of gappers today, against 42% previously.

Gap year travellers will find their money goes furthest in Brazil, India, Nepal and South Africa, according to a joint survey by travel money specialist Moneycorp and travel advice website gapyear.com.

Macca Sherifi, spokesman for gapyear.com, says: “We’ve had record numbers of people signing up to the site this year.

“However, budgets remain an issue for most gap year travellers, and finding ways to make the money go further is a hot topic at the moment.”

Moneycorp says the strong pound has soared in value by 26% against the Brazilian real, which exceeds other strong rises against local currencies in Nepal (21.5%), India (20.7%) and South Africa (18%).