University - to go now or to wait?

August 31 2021

Erin Botten is heading to Manchester to study History and Sociology this autumn. She reflects on whether heading straight for higher education or taking a gap year is the best choice after A-levels.

In just a few weeks' time, the university term will once again be in full swing. The atmosphere is set to be a stark contrast from last year as the university social scene reemerges. However, it’s also a time where many are questioning if they made the right decision.
UK universities saw a 9.4% increase in deferrals in 2020 as the pandemic left teenagers hesitant about what universities could offer. But, as various variants continued to pop up, gap year students had little else to do other than work. So what was the right decision? I spoke to friends to compare experiences and find out.
George Barbymoule said: “I was bored of having nothing to do in lockdown. I wanted a fresh start, so I thought I might as well go.”
Now starting his second year at the University of Sheffield, George explained that despite strict Covid regulations, there was little universities could do to stop flat parties. University campuses still created a resemblance of normality by housing thousands of teenagers, providing a social scene for those that sought it, like George. His routine remained similar to that of most students, citing: “Friday and Saturday night? We’re seshing. Sunday? We don’t get up on Sunday.”
Despite these social opportunities, I found in my survey that 61% of teenagers wished they’d stayed home. Why? The financial burden of university. Many UK students had a completely virtual education, with few universities continuing in-person tutorials. This isolated students from their flatmates and coursemates, as well as all university facilities. Few were able to find employment to help cover accommodation fees due to Covid’s effect on the service industry.  Additionally, 69% reported feeling lonely,  with online lectures reflecting a 9-5 week.
Yet George looked at it more positively: “There are fewer parties at home, and house comforts get boring after a while. People here are more my age; they can relate to me more than my parents can. ”
He said it was the social freedom that got him through the pandemic - something that 50% of students agree on. Despite the challenges of clicking with people online, first years were still able to make the best of the pandemic simply by having like-minded people everywhere.
The year looked pretty set for James Corbett on results day: he’d be studying at UWE and working part-time - that was until he dropped out. After a term of studying computing and living at home in Severn Beach, James began skipping classes. Something that he was previously passionate about had become a chore, and the course lacked everything he’d hoped for. Does he regret dropping out? Absolutely not: “I’d say it was the right decision. If I didn’t drop out I would’ve been miserable for the last 18 months; I don’t regret it one bit.”
With free rein over his time and plenty of furlough money to spend, James spent his impromptu gap year reconnecting with old friends. Asked how he stayed positive, James replied: “Meeting people as much as I could really.” Instead of wishing time away through a screen, he built bonfires; played cards; went out for drinks, and played video games with mates. Socialising was at the centre of James’ s gap year, and it helped him dodge a bullet. He could’ve easily let his stress build up, but ultimately his gap year provided an outlet that teenagers have craved, including myself.
Like James, my plans for 2020 were pretty clear: Uni. Yet with the belief that the pandemic would be over by the spring (with hopes to travel), I opted for a gap year. In some ways I was lucky. I still had a job as a barista which became increasingly crucial as my year went on. My main interactions revolved around regulars at the store, often retirees, with whom  I’d happily chat and joke.
However, beyond work, my gap year was full of constant blows. It felt like Groundhog Day, with 2021 acting as a repeat of 2020. Every excitingly anticipated plan fell through, and as I grew closer to turning 20 I found it hard not to envy those who had moved out. As much as I enjoyed my work, I wasn’t surrounded by people my age and quickly felt alone. My gap year simply became a waiting game. Eventually, in an attempt to combat my growing depression, I went on spontaneous solo trips around the UK, using it as an opportunity to visit friends in their university towns. It was then I realised I’d become an adult. I wasn’t hesitant about my own capabilities or confidence and had unknowingly matured from the constant blows of the last 18 months. Maybe a gap year was the right decision?
Looking at George, James and me, our experiences over the last year vastly differed. Undeniably there were challenges that came with each scenario. Students felt trapped by their degrees, and teenagers felt locked in at home. Nonetheless, I think the ‘right decision’ falls to what sort of person you are. University benefited introverts and opportunistic students, whereas a gap year benefited those with gumption. The success of the year simply depended on what you made of it.