Before the coronavirus crisis swept the world, many young people were expecting to go to university in September. But now, they might be wondering if it’s really a good idea. In this article we weigh up the pros and cons of going to university vs taking a gap year.

Going to university

Let’s start with why going to university this autumn is a good idea. A common reason to put off going to university is not receiving the right grades and wanting to retake. If this is the case, it is important to bear in mind that there will be a huge decrease in international students enrolling this year, leaving universities with lots of places to fill. This could mean that students will still be offered a place, even if they don’t quite meet the requirements. It will also mean that students will have a very good chance of getting a space through clearing. If students are ready to move on with their education, this is a good opportunity and they won’t have to spend another year re-studying A level content.

In mid-May Cambridge University was the first to announce their plans for the coming academic year. Teaching will consist of online classes for the whole of 2020/2021, with occasional face-to-face tutorials in small groups. Many other universities are following suit, while others are still yet to announce their strategies. If a student is motivated and thrives studying from home, then going to university this autumn shouldn’t be a problem. There are also benefits to students who can find their studies easily distracted by social events. It is possible this year will give the time to really focus on their new path and offer little distractions. Students could see themselves getting better grades than they’ve ever had before!

Of course there are some downsides that need to be discussed. Firstly, students need to think very carefully about their wellbeing and if going away to live in a different city with strangers will take a toll on their mental and physical health. Even if not at risk directly, it is important that students are aware that in the coming months the coronavirus might peak again in the UK and regional lockdowns are a high possibility. This could prevent them from travelling home to see their family members over holidays, especially if anyone at home is at risk. The second major thing to think about, is finance. Universities have the right to charge full tuition fees, even if teaching is done virtually. Students need to consider whether being taught online for a year is worth the money.

The next downside is student social life. There has been talk of ‘social bubbles’ meaning students will only be able to live and study with students on their course. This will  impact students’ abilities to make new friends. They will also face a non-traditional freshers week with many universities proposing a ‘virtual freshers’, involving online activities such as quizzes, gigs and parties.

Share the summary table below with students to give them something easy to refer to when making this big decision. Ask them to use remaining spaces for any other pros and cons that may be personal to their situation.

The pros and cons of going to university

Taking a gap year

Going to university with social distancing in place might feel scary to some students. They’re not alone in this. A recent poll done by The University and College Union found that 1 in 5 students would defer their place for a year – that’s around 120,000 of A level leavers. This will lead to higher competition and applications for 2021 entry.

Taking a gap year has some benefits. There are plenty of opportunities to gain work experience, internships, and skills during lockdown. See our recent article about alternative to work experience for more detailed information. Students could also use this time to learn a new skill that will put them at advantage when they do decide to go to university. This could be reading some of the books on the reading list, or watching documentaries about their subject. It is also a good idea for students to use this time to research related careers and subjects to ensure the course they’ve applied for is right for them. It is also a great opportunity for students to learn how to cook, do the laundry and learn about bills – all things many 18-year-olds don’t get to learn about until they’re thrown head-first into student accommodation.

However, there are some downsides to taking a gap year. Many people have deemed it ‘the worst gap year ever’. It has earnt this name because students won’t be able to do the traditional gap year activities. International travel will be hard to come by and very limited, so backpacking around the world and staying in hostels is, for the most part, off the cards. As far as we can see, social distancing measures are here to stay for a long time, so seeing friends, partaking in sports and nightlife will still be limited. It is also likely that finding a job will be very difficult as many people have been made redundant since lockdown. This means less jobs on the market and an increase in the number of people searching.

Students will need to think carefully if it is worth taking a year out of education to think about their course and gain some new skills, if they can’t travel to Asia, get a job or socialise. Universities may have to make cuts and so could reduce the amount of places available for 2021 intake. Share the summary table below with students to give them something easy to refer to when making this big decision. Ask them to fill remaining spaces with any other pros and cons that may be personal to their situation.

The pros and cons of taking a gap year


Before making their decision, students really need to weigh up the pros and cons and how they work as an individual. If students find studying at home difficult and can’t motivate themselves, it might be better to sit this year out and use it to gain some new skills. At the end of the day, nobody can make this decision for them and everyone will view the situation differently. They need to be certain about their choice because either way, a year is a long time and in both cases students won’t get the experience they would if it was a ‘normal’ year.

I will leave you with a few questions to ask your students:

  • What were the reasons you applied to this course and what has changed since the pandemic?
  • Has the pandemic altered your motivation, health or finances?
  • Will your health continue to be at risk, and to what extent?
  • Do you find it hard to motive yourself to attend Zoom classes and working from home? Or do you work better in this environment?
  • Do you think taking a year out will be beneficial, or will you waste it?