The gap trap still exists, despite the U-turn on fees. Ben Russell meets students in its grip
Student James Bourne had never heard of university fees when he started thinking about taking a year out. He decided on a gap year in India, working at a psychiatric hospital in Calcutta. But, before taking the final decision, he toured university open days and talked things over with careers advisers at Shrewsbury School.
All the advice given out during the autumn of last year was the same: there was no need to apply this year and arrange a formal deferred place.
Now the 18-year-old has his ABB-grade A-levels and an excellent chance of a place at a top university to study psychology. But he has found himself a victim of the so-called "gap trap" and will now be forced to pay Pounds 1,000 a year for his tuition when he finally starts life as an undergraduate.
In many ways, James, currently working to save the Pounds 2,000-plus needed to finance his New Year trip to the sub-continent, fits perfectly the image of the affluent gapper. A product of a public school costing Pounds 8,000 a year, he admits that the prospect of paying Pounds 3,000 in university fees cost him no sleep.
Yet he still feels cheated by the Government's concession which exempted gap-year students from the first university fees in 1998 - but only if they had secureda deferred place in advance.
He said: "I did not hear any mention of fees before the election. I took lots of advice before I decided to take a year off, from the careers person and at university open days. People said there was no reason not to wait for the A-level results before applying. I didn't want to have an offer on ABB and then get three Cs and have to go through clearing, so I decided to wait until my results were out.
"I am going to India with one other English person. He will be going to university at the same time as me, but he has deferred entry. We are in the same situation, but he won't be paying fees while I will."
He insists the Government should have delayed the introduction of fees to avoid this year's problems.
His is a situation causing much concern at the organisation Gap Activity Projects, which organises work for students who want to take a year out before university. Project manager Lis Pritchard said it was unfair for students, especially those undertaking voluntary work, who had planned a year out well in advance but had not secured the deferred place which triggers the Government's fees concession.
The National Union of Students is also pursuing the matter and is seeking young people who were advised not to secure a formal deferred place and are now facing fees in 1998. Union leadersare hoping to find the basis for atest case to challenge ministers' handling of the fees issue.
Also angry is Cardiff student Sunil Singh. He arranged a job with an electronics firm and was set to spend a few months in China doing voluntary work. He played safe, and applied for a place on a four-year electronics degree course at University College London, starting this year. But he arranged with the admissions tutor to call on results day to arrange a possible year out before taking the place up.
When he rang, however, the Government had just announced its concession to gappers - only those who had a deferred place on August 1 would be exempt. Sunil found he had missed the deadline by just a few days.
Sunil, 18, who secured straight As in maths, chemistry and physics at Cardiff High School, a state com- prehensive, said the thought of paying the Pounds 4,000 fees was too much, and is about to abandon his hopes of a year off. He has written to education minister Baroness Blackstone to protest but sees little hope of winning a special concession.
He said: "At college they said I should carry on as though I was going to study this year unless there is a problem with fees. I telephoned on results day but found it was not possible for me to be exempt from fees because I had missed the deadline.
"If I had known I could defer and be exempt from fees, I would have done it without hesitation and I would not be in this mess.
"For me the fees would be Pounds 4,000 for a four-year course, and more if I want to study further. I would rather go into university now while things are safe."