Gap year gains popularity as Covid-19 upends university life

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 14, 2020 - September 20, 2020.
Gap year gains popularity as Covid-19 upends university life
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IF not for the Covid-19 pandemic, Kaartik Nagarajan would have begun his university life at his dream school, the renowned Columbia University in New York City, this month.

The May deadline to accept the university’s offer coincided with the onset of the pandemic in the US, with New York being the worst-hit region.

“Given that this was the case, and we were hearing rumours that a lot of universities were going to go online at least for the first semester, if not the first year, I was very reluctant to have my university experience start this way,” he says.

As a result, Kaartik, who turns 20 next month, deferred his entry to university for a year and plans to spend his gap year starting a web development enterprise with a friend.

While universities globally are shifting towards online learning and implementing strict guidelines to limit socialisation, the gap year looks set to become an increasingly popular route for students who need to wait out the pandemic for a return to university life.

The Guardian reported a survey that found that over 20% of students applying for undergraduate entry to UK universities said they were willing to defer starting their courses if the universities were not operating as normal due to the pandemic.

Closer to home, Sunway Education Group CEO Dr Elizabeth Lee says some students slated to join the group’s universities in March have opted for the August intake or later ones.

“While most have slowly adjusted to the new norm and are comfortable with starting their tertiary learning experience, there are others who are still unsure as their families are worried about the Covid-19 pandemic and its uncertainties. As such, we have allowed for a dual mode of learning, which will encompass some blended learning (online as well as face-to-face classes) and to beam all the other in-person classes to those who cannot be with us,” she adds.

Though increasingly common, some students worry that remote learning might be a less conducive experience. Amanda Lim, who recently took a gap year but is starting her first year at Imperial College London this year, is concerned about whether online lectures would produce the same level of engagement.

Physical distancing guidelines also mean that socialising experiences, a facet of university life many look forward to, are significantly diminished.

Some Malaysian students feel short-changed by these rules, more so considering that hefty fees have not been reduced. Sean Chan, who is considering deferring his entry into University College London (UCL) this year, says he was not offered any sort of discount.

An alternative to taking a gap year might be to study at a local university. According to Lee, Sunway University has received interest from those who may have planned to study overseas but are having second thoughts now due to travel risks and the uncertain landscape in other countries.

However, expectations of an underwhelming learning experience, adversely affected social scene and general disruption in the university life he originally envisioned sealed Kaartik’s decision to put off his education, while Chan, 20, cites health concerns.

Although there is some stigma attached to taking a year off before continuing one’s education, with some parents viewing a gap year as a waste of time, those who took the leap made the most of it.

“It’s a matter of perspective. Some people will think a gap year is a waste of time, and some will think otherwise,” says Lim, who spent her gap year interning at Maybank and Unilever. “If you choose to spend most of your time slacking around, then you are going to feel like it is a waste of time.”

Lee notes that quite a significant number of students are considering joining Sunway’s universities next year and she is unsure what they will be doing during the gap year, given that travel is not advised and the job market remains tight. “I would recommend they consider taking up some short courses, which can also be used as micro-credentials to transfer to their degree or diploma courses should they wish for higher or further certification later.”

It is worth noting that the concerns surrounding taking time off school could be unwarranted as many employers no longer place sole value on formal education, a fact increasingly recognised by youth, according to the Khazanah Research Institute School-to-Work Transition survey.

“Employers rate soft skills and work experience above the academic and professional qualifications that are emphasised by Malaysian education and training institutions.

“The value of work-based learning (through internships) is that it better matches the supply and demand for skills, facilitates youth transitions from school to work, and enables young people to sharpen and clarify their career plans,” the think tank said in a 2018 report on the survey.

Though setting themselves back a year compared to their peers, those pursuing a gap year are presented a golden opportunity to build up these highly sought-after qualities through extra-curricular learning, with internships and online courses being common ways to fill up the time.

Lim, 20, says she managed to learn coding, improve her communication skills and sharpen her grasp of Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint during her internships.

“I am thankful for taking a gap year because if it was not for it, I would have rushed my way into university. The work experience I have gained during my gap year isn’t something I would trade anything for,” she shares.

Meanwhile, Kaartik says he rationalised his decision by setting goals of investing in himself, making productive decisions and gaining fruitful experiences throughout his gap year.

“Although I may graduate later, I don’t see it as a loss. I’d rather look at it as a win because I’m learning a lot of things that I wouldn’t have learnt if I had decided to go forward with my degree.”

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