Who’d go on a government-funded gap year?

Travel can be fun and inspiring, just so long as you avoid the micro-managed, skills-obsessed jaunts provided by New Labour.

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In the face of an increasingly tough graduate job market, the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has announced its latest initiative to assist students leaving university this year.

In conjunction with expedition company Raleigh International (famous for arranging Prince William’s volunteer placement in Chile a few years back), £500,000 of public funds have been made available for 500 young people, under the age of 24, to travel to countries such as Borneo, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and India and participate in development and conservation projects (1). This summer 300,000 British students graduated, the largest annual group to finish higher education in Britain, and an estimated 48 graduates are chasing every job offer (2). Against such bleak prospects for the class of 2009, the gap year initiative seems like the latest panic-driven measure thought up at a New Labour policy brainstorming session.

Cynics say that encouraging gap years during the current recession is the cleverest means yet of massaging unemployment figures (even Margaret Thatcher didn’t think that one up) (3). Others bemoan a ‘subsidised holiday’ for the middle classes (4). This easy cynicism forgets that funding for only 500 places is small numbers indeed. Yet the significance of government support for gap years reflects something more important about the ideas (or lack of them) amongst today’s politicians.

The impulse to volunteer abroad through a gap year is widely held amongst young people, and encouraged through schools, universities and now government. It is often seen as a part of developing citizenship, or, in the case of international volunteering, global citizenship. Today, gap years are accredited, structured and praised by politicians for their contribution to citizenship. Moreover, the gap year experience is increasingly seen by employers as desirable and can thus be considered, in part, as a training ground for future professionals, who accumulate ‘cultural capital’ through their volunteer work abroad. This is in stark contrast to the associations of travel in the 1960s and 70s, in which a year out on the road was more likely to be taken in the spirit of Jack Kerouac, dropping out rather than signing up for global citizenship.

Government interest in the gap year is not new – a 2004 government-commissioned report into gap years found a growing uptake (between 100,000 and 200,000, depending on the definition you take) (5). The report’s author, Professor Andrew Jones of Birkbeck College in London, argued that what is most important is making good use of the time through a structured work placement. Soft skills considered vital for the knowledge economy – team working, leadership and communication, organisational and interpersonal skills – can be developed in a gap year, he argued.

David Lammy, the UK higher education minister who launched the current gap-year scheme, reiterated the importance of ‘soft skills’ such as ‘the communication and leadership skills that are so highly valued in the workplace’ (6). These ‘soft skills’ apparently can’t be gained through the lecture hall or seminar room, yet are essential for the competitiveness of the economy and for the individual seeking a decent job.

It is ironic that higher education, following the lead of the government, has done much to reduce the potential for higher-level study to contribute to independence of mind, self-reliance and resourcefulness. In the name of improving the ‘student experience’, student life has become more regulated and micro-managed, with formal rules replacing assumptions of trust and cosseting replacing the assumption of adulthood.

Besides, these ‘soft skills’ have been being promoted in British schools and universities for some time, often to the detriment of subject knowledge. For example, in his recent book Alex Standish pointed out that the school geography curriculum has evolved in the direction of such soft skills, sometimes to the detriment of geographical knowledge (7). Universities, too, have adapted to the skills and citizenship agendas.

Certainly travel and work abroad can form part of broadening one’s knowledge; taking a step into the adult world and taking responsibility for oneself. Such travel can be inspiring, challenging, or just simply fun. Yet it seems to us that this sponsorship of the gap year, and encouragement to spend the time brushing up one’s life skills with an eye on future employment, reduces the potential for the individual really to gain from taking a year out.

The government’s partner in the new initiative, Raleigh International, will, for a fee, broker a placement, oversee it, assess the risk and even liaise with your parents… thus removing from the process the very things that would constitute growing up, taking initiative and responsibility. The new scheme promises a subsidy for the lucky 500 applicants if they can raise their airfare plus £1,000. But if you have the initiative, or luck, to get your hands on this money, why not be a real self-starter and organise your own time out?

The plethora of gap year companies would concur with the official line – that a year out should be properly organised to maximise its benefit for the individual. Gap projects are closely aligned to promoting a sense of global citizenship through helping people less fortunate and environments under threat. The worthy impulse to ‘make a difference’ is a central motif of the gap year and an industry has grown up offering ‘adventure with a purpose’.

David Lammy hopes the new scheme ‘will encourage more people than ever to volunteer on worthwhile and sustainable projects’ (8). But it is hard to argue that these ‘sustainable’ projects contribute much at all beyond a rather patronising view of the local people. Each graduate on a project will take part in a ten-week Raleigh expedition, which combines community and environmental work in remote communities with a challenging adventure element. Community work could include building wooden huts, an activity that presumes local people could not do this themselves. The money involved in a gap year could certainly be used to employ a much greater quantity of local labour than the gapper could ever offer, especially given that there is no requirement for technical skills or qualifications. As a further criticism, the environmental work of gap years often prioritises conservation in areas of severe human poverty (9).

Perhaps this is to miss the point, though. After all, these gap year projects are more to do with personal transformation than social transformation – and the new project is up front about that.

One study of gap years reveals a sense amongst participants that more ethical decisions would be made by politicians and business leaders were they to have experienced, at first hand, the societies whose people may bear some of the brunt of their decisions. Jonathan Cassidy, of the gap year provider Quest Overseas, argues that if influential business people could ‘look back for a split second to that month they spent working with people on the ground playing football with them or whatever’, then they would act more ethically in their business lives (10). Such sentiments are typical. Through individual experience we can develop, decision by decision, a more ethical world, with less suffering, more fairness and greater opportunity. This is illustrative of a very limited, personalised take on development that seems to have become more prominent in a political climate characterised by the perceived failure of grand political narratives.

While a number of commentators have been cynical about the alleged massaging of unemployment figures, there is a deeper cynicism at the heart of this gap-year initiative. Graduates should surely be considered amongst societies’ brightest and best. Traditionally, when university graduates were brought into business, the civil service and wider civil society this marked their entry to the real world. In the adult world graduates were expected to make a meaningful and important contribution. Today, in contrast, the growing importance placed by the government on encouraging graduates to take a gap year abroad is tantamount to admitting that real meaning in bright young adults’ lives cannot be provided ‘at home’. The contemporary gap year arguably outsources responsibly for providing graduates with a sense of their future prospects to local communities in the developing world.

Aligning gap years with soft skills, employability and global citizenship suggests that government ministers have forgotten what it means to grow up. Travel for volunteering, or to see the world, can involve a sense of independence, freedom and experimentation, with cultures, lifestyles and politics. If the current scheme’s chief architect, Peter Mandelson, thinks back to his own gap year in Tanzania, taken following his dalliance with the Young Socialists and the Communist Party, he might recall it being taken out of such a spirit. We also have to question the motives of government intervention to encourage ‘worthwhile’ gap years doing ‘sustainable’ projects: this won’t encourage robust, independent, capable people, as it assumes that young adult’s time has to be managed, risk assessed and organised for them by others.

The outsourcing of responsibility for providing graduates with their first forays into the real world to communities in developing countries also reveals an elite that lacks a clear vision to inspire recent graduates. Real self-starters should look elsewhere for inspiration and a lesson in life.

Jim Butcher lectures at Canterbury Christ Church University, and is the author of Ecotourism, NGOs and Development: a Critical Analysis, published by Routledge (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Peter Smith is the director of tourism at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London.

(1) Raleigh and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills launch bursary award for recent graduates, Raleigh International, 30 July 2009

(2) Cold Comfort for Class of ’09, Association of Graduate Recruiters, 6 July 2009

(3) Taxpayers will fund gap years for graduates to stop them going on benefits, Daily Mail, 1 August 2009

(4) Gap-year graduates to be funded by taxpayers, The Times, 2 August 2009; Graduates to get gap-year money, BBC News, 1 August 2009; Graduates to work on overseas community and environmental schemes, Daily Telegraph, 3 August 2009

(5) Review of gap year provision, Department for Education and Skills (DfES), Andrew Jones, University of London, 2004

(6) Raleigh and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills launch bursary award for recent graduates, Raleigh International, 30 July 2009

(7) Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the Moral Case for Geography, Alex Standish, Routledge, 2008

(8) Raleigh and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills launch bursary award for recent graduates, Raleigh International, 30 July 2009

(9) For a wider discussion see: Ecotourism, NGOs and Development: a Critical Analysis, Jim Butcher, Routledge, 2007

(10) ‘Broad horizons: geographies and pedagogies of the gap year’, Kate Simpson, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Newcastle, 2004

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