The case for going off-books

Neasa Candon spent a year as a ‘free mover’ instead of going on Erasmus – one of the best decisions of her life. She explains the differences, benefits and how to apply


It’s December; the Toy Show has passed, the nights are longer, and the procrastination more intense than ever, meaning only one thing — Christmas is on the way! Once a time for peaceful reflection, the four week break now spells a beautiful season of Roses-gobbling, Netflix-binging, essay-scrawling and exasperated research-doing on whatever mind-boggling aspect of Trinity bureaucracy you have to deal with this year.

But if you’re in the ranks of students hesitantly planning an Erasmus, unable to go on Erasmus, or regretting not getting that form in on time last year, Christmas has come early. With the wave of a wand most of your bureaucratic worries could disappear (but not all of them, obviously. This is Trinity after all). Going off books is the answer you never knew you needed.

Last year I took a year off books to study as a ‘free mover’ at Universität Kostanz in southern Germany, and it was one of the best decisions of my life. As student of German, I am required to spend a minimum of 6 weeks in a German-speaking country before graduation, although it is strongly encouraged that we spend a year abroad. However, as a TSM student, the associated inter-departmental confusion combined with Erasmus red tape (Learning agreements? Grade transfers?) all became a little too much, and so I attempted to seek out other options for  year abroad.

I decided to take a year off books, effectively taking a gap year, as I wanted to relax and fully enjoy the experience (read: travel and sample the nightlife) without having to worry about my grades. After considering various options, I chose to study as a free mover on a direct exchange from the TCD Germanic department. Although the choice really, really confused everyone at home, and while I didn’t manage to fully escape from Trinity admin woes, once September came I was free to make what I wanted of the year.

After completing an orientation and language course, we travelled for a couple of weeks before beginning classes in October. Many of our Konstanz Erasmus pals experienced huge difficulties in registering for compulsory classes, as in most European universities, the onus is on students to organise their timetable and to ensure they’re registered in compulsory modules. However, as a free mover, I could pick up as many new subjects as I wanted and switch between modules easily. I took classes in spanish, psychology, politics and english literature while keeping up german and sociology.

It was the perfect combination of furthering my studies and exploring Europe, as when exam time came around I had the liberty of splurging on 5 wonderful weeks of unbroken travel across Europe, from Malta to Milan, Slovakia to Scandinavia, with countless cities in between.

Although my exchange was organised through college, many European universities are open to ‘free-mover’ applications from individual students. Finding accommodation under these circumstances may be slightly more difficult, as you would not necessarily be placed on a student housing list, however these difficulties are the same as ones faced when working abroad or doing a J1. University fees for EU citizens on mainland Europe tend to be a fraction of those paid in Ireland and the UK, with our own student contribution in Konstanz totalling €90 per semester. For me, the greatest benefit of the ‘free mover’ system is flexibility of study.

I wanted to stay in a university routine while dabbling in new subjects, with the option of missing the odd class to work and travel. Although some feel it’s a waste of time and study, not to earn credits for the work you do as a free mover, studying without the end goal of credits can open your eyes to which subjects truly interest you. It also cuts out the pressure of balancing the social and academic elements of university life, a pressure experienced by countless Erasmus students. It should be noted that the free mover option is not only open to languages or arts students. Classes are taught through English in numerous EU institutions, particularly in the Netherlands and Nordic Countries.

Most of the international students I met on my own exchange did not study languages, with over half speaking little or no German. Nevertheless, we all managed to get by day to day, with almost everyone returning home equipped with some level of fluency in German.

Of course there are so many more options for going off books; undertaking a year-long internship or work placement in Ireland or abroad, travelling for a year, volunteering at home or overseas, writing your novel, starting a business; the list really is endless. Dual language students could live and study in two different cities while off books, or even better, study off books with your second language after completing an Erasmus exchange.

The best part about going off books is that your year can be a combination of all of the above. You can chop and change as you go, or organize every single week to the minute, answerable only to yourself. It is what you make of it. As someone who threw herself from a hectic TY programme and a gruelling Leaving Cert cycle directly into the surreal world of Third Level, taking a year off books was the best thing I could have done for my mental health and wellbeing.

I met so many incredible people, visited amazing places (some of which I still can’t pronounce correctly), and returned to the comfort of Third Year, picking up from directly from where I had left off.

As wonderful as taking a year off books can be, there are of course several important things to consider before downing tools and fleeing Trinity. You do not pay fees while off books, however taking into account rental, living and travel expenses, and the fact that off-books students are not entitled to an Erasmus-style grant, the additional year could disrupt you or your family’s third level budgeting plan.

Make sure to research the cost of living in your chosen town or city before departing; many universities provide local budget guidelines for visiting students on their websites, which can be extremely helpful. It is also important to bear in mind that there is a certain amount of bureaucracy involved with going off books, expect the unexpected.

Off-books applications must be made through your tutor, so it is a good idea to organise a meeting with them as soon as you’ve made your decision. From my own experience, tutors can be less than helpful, in which case you can request for your tutor to be changed, or, in urgent cases, submit your off-books application through the Senior Tutor. Keep checking your TCD email while away, I was almost deregistered from college because of a delay in processing applications; thankfully this was avoided through regular contact with the Academic Registry.

Lastly, reintegrating into the Trinity bubble while experiencing an overwhelming feeling of Wanderlust isn’t the easiest thing in the world. It can be difficult to knuckle down during the year (hence why I’m writing this article and not the three essays due next week). However, on returning from Germany I was motivated to get even involved with college life, and to run for positions that I never would have seen myself in before.

The independence and self-confidence gained from such a year is arguably its greatest asset. I would encourage anyone interested in going off books to research further and, if it suits you, to take the plunge. You won’t regret it.