Mind the gap
When I was a younger lecturer, most of my students had come to university directly from school. A much smaller number came by different routes: some were mature students seizing a chance to do a university course they had never anticipated doing, and some came to their studies from a so-called ‘gap year’. Typically this latter group came from a more privileged social background. At the time I always enjoyed the particular outlook and approach of mature students, but those who had enjoyed gap years also sometimes had an interesting and more considered outlook on their studies. Of course not everyone could do this; usually it required better off and maybe somewhat indulgent parents.
Now a small number of universities in the United States are experimenting with this phenomenon, and are specifically targeting students from poorer backgrounds. Tufts University for example are offering to fund a gap year for such students by paying for housing, travel and fees. A spokeswoman for the university explained that ‘it’s about providing an experience that up until now has been largely confined to students from more economically privileged backgrounds’.
Will this catch on, and indeed, should it? It’s a difficult question to answer, because more generally the demographics of higher education have changed, as have the expectations of some students as to when in their lives they will do their degree studies. But for those who still travel through the education highway in one unbroken journey, the possibility of a break in the form of a gap year may be interesting. Whether it is affordable, from the university’s point of view, may be another matter; or at least affordable beyond funding a small token number. But this American experiment does remind us that the patterns and expectations of the student experience continue to change.