More south-west students are taking gap years than the state's average, new research reveals.
A new study prepared for Deakin University by south-west initiative Beyond the Bell Great South Coast shows 19.7 per cent of Warrnambool students who exited school in 2017 deferred tertiary study last year.
Colac saw 14.5 per cent of students defer, Southern Grampians 15.6 per cent, Corangamite 19.5 per cent, Glenelg 25.8 per cent and Moyne 30 per cent.
On average, 10 per cent of Victorian students were deferring their studies.
The report also revealed that out of 428 senior high school students in Warrnambool and Southern Grampians, 50 per cent planned to delay heading to university in favour of a gap year.
The top four reasons included wanting to travel, financial reasons - including needing to qualify for youth allowance, wanting to take a break from study and not knowing what to study after school.
Warrnambool's Matilda O'Brien, 19, graduated from year 12 at Emmanuel College in 2018.
She received a Deakin University year 12 VCE high achieving student award for ATAR of over 90, and was accepted into a paramedicine course at ACU Melbourne but deferred her study for 12 months.
"I was never really sure want I wanted to do so I thought I'd give myself a year off to figure it out and make some money," she said.
Ms O'Brien worked at Warrnambool cafes Day Kitty and the Pavillion for 12 months before deciding she no longer wanted to study paramedicine.
"I ended up changing my course to psychology to keep my options open," she said.
"I don't think I realised how mentally tough paramedicine would be and I soon realised it wasn't ideal for me. Psychology will provide me a range of places to work at and will be a lot less specific."
After 12 months at home, Ms O'Brien has this week moved to Melbourne where she is studying psychology at La Trobe University and living on campus at Menzies College.
She said she never felt pressured to go straight to university, and that she was relieved she took the time to really consider her future.
"I think I always knew I would defer," she said.
"I couldn't have gone to uni straight out of high school. I wouldn't have had any money, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do and I wasn't ready to leave home. I needed that extra year.
"I don't regret it at all."
Student forums held in 2018 at four secondary schools from the Warrnambool and Southern Grampians regions saw 17 year 11 and 24 year 12 students discuss university deferral and their plans for the following year.
Of those students, 45 per cent planned a gap-year break to travel, 41 per cent wanted a break from studies, 36 per cent hoped to earn funds to enable access to youth allowance and 33 per cent planned to take a year off to get work experience.
A small number of students indicated they were planning a gap year to earn/save money.
During the forums, students discussed why they were unsure what they would do once school was complete, with a strong theme being a lack of career pathway and career choice information prior to year 12.
A number of students also discussed the stress and pressure of year 12 and wanting to take a break from the deadlines, the competitive nature and being told their future depended on it.
Brauer College principal Jane Boyle said data gathered from multiple local secondary schools helped to establish "genuine local trends".
"Once empowered with this knowledge the community - parents, teachers and leaders - can use this as the basis for important discussions to ensure our young people can reach their full potential," she said.
A survey completed by 200 year 11 students and 228 year 12 students revealed 27 per cent were planning to go straight to university and five per cent to TAFE.
Emmanuel College principal Peter Morgan said VCE-level studies required a "genuine commitment" from students who wished to achieve results that paved the way for future options.
"While a gap-year can be a wonderful experience for many school leavers, there are potential ramifications of taking time off which needs to be considered," he said.
"A break in study can be the trigger for some students not pursuing tertiary study or training.
"It's vital that parents and teachers speak to students about the pros and cons of a year off, so that our region's students have every chance at pursuing the exciting pathways available to them.
"The information in this report is key to helping teachers and parents equip our young people with the skills to make informed decisions."
Port Fairy's Jake Hetherington, 25, graduated from Emmanuel College in 2013 and took part in a sport and outdoor education traineeship at the school the following year.
He said he initially had no clear intentions of what he wanted to do but the traineeship opened his mind to teaching.
Mr Hetherington spent three years at Deakin's Geelong campus studying secondary school teaching before deferring for 12 months to travel around Europe.
He has since returned, finished his degree and is getting ready to move interstate to find work.
Mr Hetherington said he had no regrets figuring out his future at his own pace.
"Sometimes I look at mates who went straight to uni and now have a good job, own a house and are quite set up, and that can be quite confronting but I have a lot of life experiences and people who are older do always say you've got your whole life to work," he said.
Deakin University Warrnambool campus director Alistair McCosh said gap years had proven benefits but there were concerns they had "become the norm".
"Our concerns from a uni perspective is that students may not actually need to take one," he said.
"Gap years can definitely serve a purpose for those who are unsure about what they want to do or are struggling with financial issues, but a lot of students do really benefit from going on and commencing tertiary education straight away.
"They stay engaged and they're out in the workforce a year or two ahead of their peers who take some time off.
"It's certainly something we feel needs to be looked at from a student and parents perspective because we certainly don't want a student to take a gap year that leads to two or three years, and then returning to study becomes difficult for them because they've lost that connection with education."
Mr McCosh said he believed students who wished to study, save money and travel could "do it all".
"Particularly if you're studying here in Warrnambool and you live within commuting distance," he said.
"Students start in March, finish in October and have a number of breaks in between, so if students manage their time they can certainly work part time while studying, and most students do.
"We actually encourage students to work, particularly if its aligned to their studies."
Mr McCosh said university also offered students unique travelling opportunities, such as studying abroad.
"We have 150 different study destinations available to our students so there's not much you can't do in terms of travel opportunities," he said.
"It really is possible to go straight through to university while also enjoying your life.
"And you can make it work for you. If you are concerned about your finances while you are studying, you can chose to cut down to just two or three units per trimester and then pick something up in trimester three (similar to summer school).
"A lot of students chose to lighten their yearly loads and pick up an intensive unit later."
Mr McCosh said the Deakin University deferral report provided a great opportunity for universities and secondary school to better understand what students were facing.
"It has created more awareness around student's concerns about transitioning from secondary school to university and what that transition really looks like," he said.
"As a leader in the region, Deakin is committed to ensuring the talent of young people is realised - and that school leavers have every chance to access further education and reap the lifelong benefits of a tertiary education."
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