If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Saturday, 1 August 2009

All on the taxpayer - again

Well, well, well. Gap Year trips for undergraduates paid for by you and me.

I can't tell you how angry this makes me. The proposal is to send University leavers who can't get jobs after graduation on a summer holiday, sorry a significant gap year experience, courtesy of the sodding taxpayer. I expect this will sound like full Old Git mode, but here goes anyway.

What is a gap year? Well, it started, in my experience, when kids wanted to spend some time 'broadening their horizons' between school and University. I thought it was a good idea then, and certainly when I was at Uni the first-year students who had done this were noticeably more mature than the rest of us. Although the idea was to work your way around, it helped if your parents were rich and you didn't have to work too hard. A mate went hitching round Europe and ended up getting arrested by the Guardia Civil in Spain for public drunkenness. He got a few odd jobs to say he was 'working his way' round Europe, but really he was supported by two wealthy and indulgent parents. I envied him then, but not so much now. I would have gone with him, but my parents put their foot down and said I should stay in the UK and work here, so I spent that vacation, and every other while I was at College, working as a hospital porter at St James's in Leeds. (Funnily enough, of all the jobs I have had, that is the one I look back on with the most affection, tough though it was.)

Gap years nowadays seem to be a lot more exotic - Spain is just sooooo last-century, dear, and today's Chloes and Sebastians go to Guadaloupe or Puerto Rico or Bali. Not for the parties and drugs and the masses of sexual opportunities, you understand, but to help those less fortunate, and especially little brown children. It makes them feel like world citizens, I suppose, in a way that my generation never had chance to do. Flights half-way round the world cost 6 months' wages in those days. It is significant that a myriad of companies have sprung up to offer these little trustafarians a 'unique and valuable' experience for their gap years, although not so long ago some of the more serious outfits (linked with Oxfam and some other major players) reported that the untrained and frequently uncommitted little darlings liked partying more than helping, and even when they tried to help were more of a hindrance. You see, building schools and getting water to remote villages and teaching little brown children English needs training and experience, which are two things the trustafarians are guaranteed to have none of. They have only just finished their education, for God's sake. Try getting a position with VSO and see how picky they are for jobs that really help. You need professional qualifications and have to demonstrate your commitment before they will even interview you.

So please excuse me if I am a little bit cynical about the very idea of gap years these days. It sounds more like an excuse to party. Nothing wrong with that, but it's hypocritical to dress it up as charitable works. Spend a year serving out soup to the homeless in Manchester at midnight, or wiping snot and other bodily fluids off the floor in a British geriatric ward, then I will respect your commitment to the less fortunate, and believe that you have done something useful with your time.

There's no price tag on this as yet, but it won't be cheap. I always objected to the 'holidays in the sun for youth offenders' idea, as it rewarded bad behaviour with things that most non-offending young people couldn't dream of. This measure is likely to give the generation with the strongest sense of entitlement since the court of Louis XVI even more reasons to believe that they are somehow special, and that the taxpayer (that's the rest of us, slaving away in insecure and mind-numbing jobs) will always support them in their slightest whim and fancy.

After all, they are graduates, aren't they? They deserve to be treated well. Never mind that they are unemployable at the level they think is appropriate to their qualifications. Never mind that they will be unemployed because they are not prepared to take something beneath them, like secretarial, manual or clerical work, and work their way up.

If you are going to send kids volunteering, as they are calling it, what's wrong with some volunteering in the UK? It's not as if there's nothing to do. We have homeless, drug-addicted, under-educated people, and public buildings that need repairing, and worthwhile projects that need manpower here, too. But they lack a certain cachet, I admit. Blustery Birmingham, or balmy Borneo? No contest.

But that would be 'slave labour', in the eyes of the parents. Sending the little darlings off to somewhere sunny, where they can get off their faces in peace and build up their CVs, is much more like it.

Do you remember the Bizarro world in the Superman comics, where everything was the opposite of here? People who made drinks in the TV programmes and sat down to watch the adverts, that kind of thing? I feel like I am living there.


  1. Am I missing the point here?
    Government withdraws grant funding for students, saddles them with debt and more debt, then insists on top-up fees and social equalisation fees...and at the same time would like to give them a paid holiday at the end of it because Media Studies is an utterly unemployable qualification?
    I think there may be a simpler alternative. Perhaps even two.
    Way of the world, though. When I was at 6th form, there were two students with their own cars. Now there are probably only two without. When I funded myself through Polytechnic, a gap year was an option - if you wanted to pay for it yourself (I didn't, after dropping out of Uni, I was already a mature student when I went back to finish my degree). In fact, the best I could afford was hitching up north a ways and crashing on people's sofas for a few weeks.
    I don't envy the "kidz of today", though. I'd rather have had what I had: it was real and I earned it. That gives it a value that no tawdry soundbite bribe like this one will ever achieve. What is sad, however, is that they will probably never be given a frame of reference in which to understand that. The eBay generation: they are taught the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  2. The utter illogicality of this measure tells you its purpose - to be seen to be 'doing something', perhaps one of Tony Blair's famous 'eyecatching initiatives', to ingratiate themselves with the middle-class voters, to keep a few more off the dole queue. In fact, anything but admit that many of the graduates coming out of our 'Universities' these days are virtually unemployable. A degree in Outreach Awareness Facilitation from the University of Heckmondwike does not make you instantly attractive to the likes of ICI, no matter how the Govt spin it.

    We did a lot of recruitment last year when we launched the new business. Finding 400 people was bloody hard work, despite the fact that Pembs has some of the highest unemployment in Wales, and we had to reject several graduates because they would only consider managerial or supervisory roles, when they had no experience of the area they wished to manage or supervise. The sense of entitlement was astonishing. "I am a graduate; you should be grateful for my application." Er, no.

    My kids are going through this stage at the moment, and I don't envy them one bit.


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