LAST WEEK, RICKY Ng Yu-ho, 20, started his degree in accounting at Shue Yan College in North Point. But he was dreaming of elsewhere - travelling through China to work with the poor perhaps, or lying on a beach in Australia. His dream coalesced after he met two young people from Britain and the United States who taught English at his school during their gap year - a popular 12-month break between secondary school and further education. 'That was the first time I'd heard of the term 'gap year',' he says. 'I thought what a good experience, I could see the world and learn things I could never learn at school.' Local students rarely take what is a rite of passage for many young western students, known as 'gappers'. It is a phenomenon made popular by universities' growing acceptance to defer admissions and the assistance of charities organising expeditions. Last year, 40,000 British sixth-formers opted to broaden their horizons by taking a year out before beginning full-time tertiary education or employment. The students from all kinds of backgrounds, including Prince William who three years ago spent time on a ranch in Chile, and his younger brother Prince Harry who began his gap year this summer in Australia, hope to use the time to think about their future and experience life. Some teach English, others simply work in bars, shops or post offices to finance their round-the-world odyssey. It is an 'upward trend' that English School's Foundation (ESF) education officer for secondary schools Graham Ranger has noticed in Hong Kong. In ESF's five secondary schools alone, the number of students taking a gap year rose from just a handful 10 years ago to between 50 and 100 this year, he says. But for the vast majority of Hong Kong students it remains a foreign concept. A spokeswoman for the Education and Manpower Bureau, which has no figures on the number of local students taking a year out, says there is no policy on gap years and no plan to promote it in secondary schools. While many overseas institutions are open to deferrals - some, such as Harvard, even urge applicants to take a year off to mature - local universities rarely grant such requests, says Amelia Tsang Kit-yee, careers officer of St Mary's Canossian College. 'It's very difficult to get a deferral. Universities won't reserve a place for a student because they are unsure if the student will return,' Tsang says, adding that it is harder for students to apply for a place after a year off. Hong Kong's dire shortage of university places is one problem, Tsang says, as most of the offers go to the Joint University Programmes Admissions System, an organisation of Hong Kong's eight universities, which allocates places to fresh school-leavers. The universities deal with deferral applications on a 'case by case' basis. 'If we start an established system to allow deferrals for a gap year, it will become so convenient that everyone will ask for a deferral. It would mean a lot of work for us,' says a spokesman for the University of Hong Kong. 'Students must have a genuine need to apply for deferrals, such as pregnancy, family problems or illness,' says a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Chinese culture's emphasis on education is one of the main barriers to acceptance of the gap year. Hau Kit-tai, chairman of the department of educational psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says: 'In western countries, people don't find it odd not going to university, but in the Chinese system, it is not accepted. Chinese believe studying hard is a social norm that is necessary to climb the social ladder.' Fierce competition and the fear of falling behind on the career ladder are major deterrents. 'In Hong Kong, students are eager to get on with study and go out to work, do well and get promoted as soon as possible,' says Ranger. 'They don't want to waste a year, while a lot of western students, who value a gap year, don't feel that pressure.' Ricky Ng knows such pressure only too well. Last year, he told his parents he wanted to take a year off to 'work and travel' before attending university. 'Crazy! You better study first,' they said. His friends also discouraged him. 'They said 'Don't be silly. Think about it only after you finish studying',' Ng recalls, admitting he also struggled with the idea. 'I was afraid that if most of my friends continued their studies while I went off for a year, I would be left behind.' While thousands of westerners are travelling the world, relaxing in conservation camps or surveying reefs in the Caribbean, 20-year-old Victoria Li Ming-kei, sits in her classroom at Hong Kong Polytechnic University studying for an engineering degree. She never gave a moment's thought to taking a gap year. 'My mother is a single parent and we live on social security. I can't afford to take a year off - I want to graduate faster, find a job to help support my family,' she says. But a gap year doesn't always cost, explains Ranger, who says a lot of ESF students, both local and overseas, finance their travel by working in hotels, bars, or picking fruit. Joyce Wu Ka-ying, one local student who is taking a year off, used the $13,000 she earned working for a month as a shipping clerk to finance a trip to Beijing to teach English and learn Putonghua, start a scholarship for poor children in Sichuan and teach at summer camp in Hong Kong. Like many students, the former pupil of Maryknoll Convent School in Kowloon Tong says she'd never heard of a gap year until she switched three years ago to study Form Six at Li Po Chun United World College, an international school. Wu says her year out made her more 'confident, independent and mature'. 'I used to compare myself to others constantly. It often made me unhappy. Now I don't do that, because I've learned to admire myself and know I have ability,' she says. A well-used year out not only benefits the personal development of the student, but also helps them impress future employers and universities, says Ranger. 'A gap year is a beneficial year, not a waste year. Students learn a lot about themselves, and enjoy privileges many others do not. It is a positive year in terms of a CV. Employers do look to what students do in a gap year,' he says. Joyce Wu agrees. Far from falling behind her peers, her year out has not only helped broaden her outlook, but made her more eager to learn new things and helped convince one university to accept her as an economics student. Next month, she begins studying at England's hallowed Cambridge University.