4 University Students Explain How Covid-19 Destroyed Their Future Ambitions

Essay by Bryony Gooch

As the summer of 2020 came to an end, students were given a glimpse of hope. Or, at least, of normality. Pubs and social meeting spots had reopened, albeit with restrictions. We were told that it was safe to return to universities; that they were putting in place measures that allowed for a seamless blend of online and in-person teaching. It seemed as though our world was inching back towards the life that the prospectuses had promised. There were even whispers that clubs might reopen as we packed our bags for our return to campus.

This illusion was shattered on 7 September, when a surge of COVID-19 cases among young people prompted the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to urge us not to “kill [our] grans” by ignoring restrictions. He specifically pointed the finger at affluent under-25-year-olds, though he mentioned that there had also been a surge of cases among young people from the most deprived backgrounds. The pending return of university students, with most freshers’ weeks starting in the second week of September, was considered a “concern” – but not sufficiently concerning to precipitate further action.

This description of the key offenders – affluent under-25-year-olds – aligns neatly with the existing stereotype of university students as entitled and badly behaved. Yet, at the same time, the Trades Union Congress was reporting that young people were three times more likely than those over 25 to work in sectors in which jobs were most at risk. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies further concluded, “Over the last decade, young people starting out in the labour market have increasingly been working in occupations that are relatively low-paid.” It also found that many of these low-paying occupations are “in sectors hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis”, citing hospitality and retail as examples.

When the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was rolled out in August, many young people returned to their low-income, high-exposure jobs in the service industry. In this context, Hancock’s plea to the supposedly “affluent” young felt unsettling. The finger pointed at young people cast the shadow of a gun directed at the elderly. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, two months into university, I briefly returned to my sleepy little village and an old acquaintance pointed a finger at me, glowering: “If we go into a second lockdown, it will be your lot’s fault. It’ll be your lot at university’s fault.”

It is safe to say that the past two terms have been far from normal. Media coverage of young people’s experience of the pandemic tends to focus on the flouting of rules and £10,000 fines for illegal parties. But look at Manchester, where students were fenced into their accommodation to reinforce lockdown restrictions. Or Exeter, where I study: here, there were reports that young people were turned away from the local NHS walk-in centre with no explanation offered. On a national level, students initiated the largest rent strike in 40 years. The average student has so far wasted more than £1,621 renting rooms that they have been unable to use. The National Union of Students’ vice-president, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, says that students have been “exploited and ignored”.

You might have heard about a friend’s son losing an apprenticeship, or a student whose first year at uni was experienced primarily via a laptop screen. These stories aren’t always at the forefront of conversations about the younger generation – but piece them together and they create an uneasy collage of what it means to be a young adult in 2020.

Starters’ Orders

This year, the “fresher” label has shed its former connotations. Memories of starting university are usually of the nervous excitement of moving to a completely new place with people you have never met, all of whom have life experiences different to your own. It is supposed to be an opportunity to study something you are passionate about, to figure out what you want to do with your life and to discover your future role in society.

But even results day was soured last year when Ofqual revealed a standardisation algorithm that scaled exam results, purportedly to combat grade inflation. After the regulator’s adjustments, over a third of students ended up with grades lower than the teachers’ assessments. The algorithm appeared to target state schools in particular, lowering results, while some private schools received grades higher than those their teachers had predicted.

Eventually, the government withdrew the Ofqual-assigned grades, allowing prospective students to attend their universities of choice. But there remained the reality that this year could never deliver the experience to which students had looked forward when they first filled in their UCAS applications.

At the University of Exeter, documents obtained by the Telegraph revealed that decision-makers had planned to “entice” students to their halls by hosting enough events to “justify” their return. Students were promised blended learning that would adhere to Exeter’s high standards, suggesting that we would have plenty of interaction – virtual or otherwise – with tutors and lecturers.

But back in September, a first-year history student I spoke to told me that his timetable only had three “contact hours” per week, with one of them taking place in person and the other two via group Zooms. The majority of our time is taken up with solo studying or pre-recorded lectures.

The university had assured students that, after three weeks of reduced contact, things would gradually return to normal. But these plans were derailed by an outbreak of cases, after which a “soft lockdown” was implemented, banning household mixing and further reducing interactions with our teachers. It became clear that certain promises would be hard to keep.

Support Networks

The pandemic has revealed inequity in society, including within my generation. The size of the maintenance loan that a student receives is based on household income, which means that students from lower-income households receive a bigger loan. Yet individual circumstances are nuanced. The amount that your parents earned last year is not always an accurate indicator of the level of support they’re currently in a position to provide. Many students struggle and end up taking part-time jobs. When one of my friends caught COVID-19, I dropped off groceries at her house. She told me that she had received no statutory sick pay from her part-time job, so she would find it hard to pay her bills for the month to come.

During the first lockdown, I remember hearing friends in different parts of the country express concern that their employers had not furloughed them. As many students returned home, on the advice of their universities, they found themselves paying rent for accommodation that they weren’t living in and could no longer afford. While universities have offered funds specifically to help alleviate financial inequities, COVID-19 has nevertheless worsened life for many young people from lower-income backgrounds by taking away what little means of making money they had.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a quiet emphasis on support networks. Yet, while universities recommended that students return home during the first lockdown, not all young people had a home to return to. Estranged and care-experienced students are an oft-forgotten demographic, facing their own economic and well-being challenges outside the context of COVID-19. Some young people without traditional support networks have faced near-constant isolation as a result of this pandemic.

International students face challenges, too. As the reality of COVID-19’s impact began to make headlines, they were faced with a choice between staying in the UK or returning to their homes – between not knowing when they’d next see their family and not knowing when they’d return to the UK. A friend who chose to stay and complete their masters has not seen their family in Malaysia for 18 months, despite their father being very ill.

Another friend recalls receiving no advice on whether to return to her home country when the Czech Republic seemed likely to close its borders. She points out the conundrum for those hoping to apply for pre-settled status as a result of Brexit. Would leaving the UK jeopardise their future citizenship applications?

Many international students did not return to campus for the first term of this academic year, instead completing their degree courses online. I’ve heard of students forced to attend seminars at unusual times, due to time zone differences, and of others who are unspeakably homesick.

An Uncertain Future

It’s also important to consider young adults who do not attend university. For those who came out of school looking for apprenticeships or technical work, the pandemic has created its own set of issues. This is especially true for the self-employed, or those who are not in a position to be furloughed.

One study found that the number of people starting apprenticeships halved during the first lockdown: hospitality down 67%, manufacturing technologies down 62% and engineering down 58%, to give just some examples. As businesses continue to struggle, it will remain hard for companies to support young people in the same way. Besides, not all work translates to a home environment as easily as an office job.

Early on, the Sutton Trust conducted a report on COVID-19 and social mobility. It observed not only the effect of the virus on work opportunities but also that: “Many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds undertake apprenticeships. They are more likely to be concentrated in apprenticeships at lower levels, be paid lower salaries and work at smaller companies.”

It also pointed out that, with young people unable to attend schools and colleges, they wouldn’t receive valuable face-to-face access to career counsellors at a time when employment is volatile. The report painted a concerning picture of how the pandemic could prevent people from disadvantaged backgrounds from finding stability.

The hardest thing about being a young person during this pandemic is the uncertainty. Whether you left school with your GCSE results in hand, or you’re graduating from university with a PDF of your transcripts, there’s a sense that we’re standing on the edge of a cliff, looking into an abyss where a jobs market used to be. The graduates’ information service Prospects Luminate surveyed 1,202 final-year university students, finding that 26% had lost their work placements and internships, 29% had lost job offers and 28% had had jobs deferred or cancelled.

In August last year, it was officially announced that the UK had entered into a recession for the first time in 11 years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said that the class of 2020 “will be less likely to find work and will start off in lower-paying occupations than they might have expected”. It further predicted that recovery is “likely to take at least five, and perhaps 10, years”. It doesn’t help that the instability created by Brexit has coincided with the pandemic.

I want to be sentimental and consider the time between the ages of 18 and 23 as an experience of self-growth, experimentation and finding myself. This had been a huge part of my own outlook for the past two years of university. Yet on a more practical level, I’ve had it drilled into me that going to university is supposed to help me find a career.

The decision to go to university is not an easy one. Yet the choice to sign up for three years of higher education at £9,250 per annum sometimes feels like the only option for young people. My head of sixth form used to trot out the old statistic that working-age graduates earned £10,000 more than non-graduates. But the link between higher education and social mobility feels a little flimsy when you are a third-year English student, completing your degree from your bedroom, about to graduate into a dwindling economy. It feels as if we are all in the same floundering boat, just trying to stay out of the tempest.

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