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Covid-19 and education: how can we help the young generation missing the ‘best years of their lives’?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 2 October 2020

Emma Watson.

Post-millennials, or GenZ, have been described as the first true digital natives, growing up without memory of a time before smart phones or social media. So when England moved into lockdown in March 2020, and life moved online, you might expect this generation to be the most prepared to handle the change. However, our research suggests that this generation feel they are missing out on the “best years” of their lives, having been told to stay inside, losing access to university campuses, their social lives, and job opportunities.

Between May and July this year, the ASPIRES study recorded 48 interviews with 20- and 21-year-old participants who we’ve been fortunate enough to talk to every few years, since they were ten. ASPIRES is led by Professor Louise Archer, Karl Mannheim Professor of Sociology of Education at UCL Institute of Education. We’re interested in their science and career aspirations, their life experiences and views on a range of issues. The majority of these interviews were with individuals who were graduating from university this summer, others were mid-way through university, and a handful were either already working, about to start new jobs, or looking for work in a post-pandemic economy.

The young people we spoke with shared the financial difficulties they were experiencing. For instance, university students who depended on paid work during holidays or term-time to support their living costs had been particularly hard hit. As Luna* explained, “I don’t have any help from my parents [] I really rely on having a job and working pretty much full time over [holidays] to be able to afford to pay for university, like just living costs.”

The effects of this lost employment will continue to be felt by the students into the next academic year, despite some of them being able to undertake retail and/or catering industry work more recently.

One of the report recommendations is that targeted financial support should be made available for students in higher and further education who have lost essential income due to the pandemic and lockdown.

During the interview analysis, it became apparent that universities and degree subject courses were able to support their students to different extents. Some students already had access to online lecture recordings before the move to remote learning. However all of the individuals who didn’t expressed how beneficial having access to lecture recordings was to their learning experience and hoped that this practice will continue once face-to-face lectures can resume. Some students told us about how their universities had been flexible to adapt to their needs, while other, especially those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities or mental illness, felt the pressure of deadlines and changing exam schedules was not handled well.

With many of the interviewees missing out on graduation and having their final years “cut short”, students felt it is important that universities consider ways to support students’ emotional and social wellbeing by putting in place measures for key rites of passage, such as graduation, to be moved online.

We found no evidence that the national careers provisions, such as the Careers & Enterprise Company, are reaching any of the young people in our study, despite sharing many concerns with us about employment in their futures. One of the participants, Davina*, said “getting jobs and finding houses and whatnot is already hard enough […] for people of my age […] like my generation. And then I think like obviously this whole thing [the recession] is going to make it probably […] even harder.”

Based on the views expressed by the young people, we present the following recommendations for policy-makers and those working with young people (especially in higher education).

  1. Provide targeted financial support for HE students who have lost essential employment and income (both holiday and term-time) as a result of the pandemic and lockdown.
  2. Address inconsistencies across universities and degree subject areas in supporting:
    • the move to online learning, with regular, interactive, virtual contact hours;
    • students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and students with mental illnesses;
    • access to specialist equipment and resources, including science laboratories, or alternative appropriate provisions;
    • students’ preparedness for different assessment formats;
    • clear, regular communication to students.
  1. Support students’ emotional and social wellbeing by ensuring key rites of passage can be experienced, even if online.
  2. Government, employers and other organisations to take active steps to learn from the views and experiences of GenZ, to meaningfully inform their policies and support social change for the better.
  3. Greater and easier access to mental health and youth services, especially for those who are no longer in formal education, to help address the impact of the pandemic and recession on well-being and employment.
  4. Careers support, advice and guidance to reach all GenZ workers, especially those who are self-employed and/or working in SMEs.

More detail of our initial findings of how the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown are impacting Post-millennials is presented in our Project Spotlight.

*All names in this blog and the report are pseudonyms to keep participant’s identities confidential.

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