What price the Covid Generation?

Martin Allen & Patrick Ainley (presentation to Socialist Education Association 26/06/20)

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Losing out most from the financial crash of 2008 but already referred to as a ‘Lost Generation’ today’s youth, whether they are students or looking for employment will constitute a ‘Covid Generation’ and continue to suffer prolonged disadvantages. Yet the crisis also provides opportunities to campaign for reforms.

From jobs without education to education without jobs

In recent years young people have found it increasingly difficult to find employment that will provide them with proper pay and security. Changes to the economy have meant most no longer make the relatively smooth transitions from school to work that was a feature of the post-war years – when 40% left without any qualifications often (in the case of boys) for industrial employment

Facing a precarious future, the vast majority now stay in full-time education for much longer (35% of all 18-24-year-olds recorded as being in full time learning). Yet rather than leading to the highly skilled secure ‘careers’ once promised, particularly by New Labour, young people are on average now four times more likely to be unemployed.  If they are in work, then many will be ‘overqualified and underemployed’ – the jobs they have do not require their increased levels of education to perform them.

It is estimated for example, that one third of university leavers are not able to get graduate jobs. Graduates forced to take lower paid work means less qualified youth are in turn ‘bumped down’ the labour queue. This downwards social mobility can be contrasted with the post-war years when the expansion of ‘middle’ white-collar jobs enabled a significant number of working-class youth to be upwardly mobile. This has now gone into reverse as the post-war class pyramid has gone pear-shaped.

Young people hit most by economic downturns

Young people were hit most by the 2008 financial crash taking several years to recover lost earnings.  Their relative position compared to other groups has continued to decline – at the start of 2020, unemployment for the 18-24s not in full-time education was still over 10%  (down from over 20% immediately after the  crash) with 1 in 12 classified as NEET (Not in Employment Education or Training). Once referred to as a Lost Generation, a new Covid Generation will emerge from the current crisis and the much deeper recession which follows

For those 18 and 19-year-olds under parental, peer and pedagogic pressure to ‘go to uni or die’, Covid is creating an educational crisis. Though benefiting from a summer without exam stress, many are stuck at home unclear about how grades are being calculated and unable to take part in the annual events associated with leaving school or college. 1 in 6 A-level students are reportedly considering deferring university admission and many are more worried about taking out loans for ‘online’ degrees at the same £9,250 a year rate as before. There are also reports of cash-strapped universities refusing to allow current students to take time out from their studies.

Deferral may be a sensible individual decision, but it will cause further chaos for universities already faced with loss of tuition fees from the overseas students who pay much more. Many institutions have leveraged fees against expensive building projects and on top prof and VC salaries. Meanwhile, it is estimated up to a third of those ‘graduating in their garden’ this year have had employment and internship offers withdrawn or frozen, with NUS reporting 80% of final year undergraduates worried about employment prospects. Some might consider enrolling for Masters course, hoping to better ‘reposition’ themselves in the labour market at the expense of others!

Working-class youth hit the hardest

But c.40% of young women and c.60% of young men do not apply for university and it is less qualified and generally working-class young people who will be worst hit. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, 30% of the workforce in those parts of the economy (hospitality, retailing and entertainment, for example) most hit by the Covid crisis are under 25. At least a million young workers have been furloughed –the Resolution Foundation estimates 1 in 4.  Many of these will eventually lose their positions, increasing youth unemployment by an estimated 600,000 to well over a million and to over 20%.

The hospitality sector, with the largest proportion of employees under 25 and also providing thousands of students with part-time work – most of which has now gone – may lose up to 2 million jobs. Because up to 9 million have been furloughed, figures do not reflect true rates of unemployment, or how many people are in ‘zombie jobs’ that will disappear after wage support is lifted.

Apprenticeships are promoted as an ‘alternative’ to higher education, but the Sutton Trust reports just 39% of apprenticeships continuing as normal, with 36% of apprentices having been furloughed, 8% made redundant and 17% having off-the-job learning suspended. Concerned more about their existing workforce, rather than about training new ones, 31% of employers reported they were likely to hire fewer apprentices over the coming year, or none at all.

The student bubble has burst

Meanwhile, Covid-19 has burst the bubble of market-led higher education expansion funded by fee/loans. As a result, many universities are facing bankruptcy with threats to jobs both in the institutions themselves and in areas that have come to rely upon them as large local employers and major contributors to the local economy.

The period of market-led expansion is likely be followed by a period of severe retraction. Government expects the VCs to put their own house in order by closing and merging courses and institutions, with ‘technical universities’ limited to purportedly ‘vocational’ subjects on the one hand and research institutes removed from teaching but devoted to industry and commerce on the other. These processes have already begun – at the University of Sunderland, for instance, which has declared itself ‘a technical university’ providing for local industry – whilst many of the elite institutions have long functioned as de facto research institutes.

When rationalisation does not sufficiently meet government’s expectation of the closure and merger of universities in a more differentiated hierarchy with variable fees by course and institution, the government will predictably establish a rationalising body to sort out the survivors, obviating market regulation. Perhaps the up-coming white paper proposing to ‘renationalise’ FE colleges presages this future for HE. As it is, the removal of caps on student recruitment, alongside the pursuit of overseas student fees, has already destabilised the university system.

What should campaigners and reformers argue for?

While  insisting that students should only return when it is safe to do so, campaigners in schools and colleges will continue promoting and developing an alternative pedagogy and campaigning for a  better curriculum that both improves young people’s skills and knowledge but also their ability to participate in society.

If we are going to continue with separate vocational provision then this must be accompanied by guarantees of employment – German vocational education and training (seen by many as the model to emulate) has been distinct from academic learning and takes place in separate vocational schools. It is successful because it is linked to labour market demand in a more productive economy and coordinated by employers, trade unions and local state agencies. There is nothing like this in the UK’s deregulated qualifications market. As a result, when UK employers do need to recruit for intermediate level positions, there are excess graduates to draw from instead.

Likewise, German apprenticeships in particular have continued to perform a major role in the transition to adulthood, effectively serving as a ‘licence to practice’ in many occupations. In comparison, less than a quarter of UK apprenticeship starts are by young people under 19 while almost 40% of starts offer qualification at GCSE level – a standard which most young people have reached in school. Contrary to their ‘metal bashing’ image, most apprentices are women in office and retail.

So we cannot simply copy the Germans – our economies are entirely different. Only by establishing proper employment security, in other words real alternatives to university, can we persuade those pushed into HE for economic reasons to reconsider. Like Cameron before him, Boris Johnson’s recent commitment to provide all young people with apprenticeships reflects either obtuse obfuscation or total misunderstanding of the issues involved.

It is not just a question of vocational qualifications having lower status. In view of changes to the occupational structure with the disappearance of many intermediate and technical crafts that vocational learning and apprenticeships were associated with, it is questionable if we need vocational qualifications at all. Instead, the emphasis should be on a good general Primary and Secondary education for all. This includes practical and work-related education, but also the reform of ‘academic’ learning and how it is assessed. All 18+ students could then gain a General Diploma, recognised by employers and universities. (There is no need for GCSEs to sort sheep from goats.)

Following Tomlinson and Curriculum 2000, reformers have continued to argue for the integration of academic and vocational qualifications into an overarching certificate. They have criticised the Labour Party for supporting the ‘two pathways’ approach and by implication the new, supposedly ‘technical and vocational’ T- levels – though because of the crisis, these and the additional funding promised to FE are now in doubt.

The public support that the National Education Union won for opposing school reopening until it was agreed by parents and teachers that it was safe to do so, could be extended to begin de-academicising the National Curriculum. The cancellation of this year’s GCSEs and SATs plus the attenuation of A-levels is a start! Schools might then function less as the gigantic social sorting machine that the hierarchy of private, academy and ‘free school’ chains competing with local authority schools have become.

However, the collapse of employment opportunities means that demands for a less divisive and more egalitarian post-16 curriculum these reforms will have to be combined with other policies. In addition to job guarantees, there should be discussion about some form of ‘youth income’.

As has been argued above, the crisis facing young people is a jobs not a skills problem. Their position cannot be significantly improved without serious changes to the labour market and therefore to the economy. The current crisis provides real opportunities for this to happen, if only by default.

New strategies for Tertiary Education

Instead of preparation on the basis of more or less expensively acquired cultural capital demonstrated in exam results, interviews and so-called ‘skills’ for entry to the hierarchy of snobbery, sexism and racism that universities often present, Tertiary Education could instead offer entitlement to free lifelong education and training to all following graduation from a more general and less academic Secondary schooling.

Universities in particular may therefore not remain so ‘front-loaded’ by young entrants but will be open to students of all ages. (The majority of students in FE were always adult – and female.) Not that all students would undertake full-time degree courses; many might prefer part-time recreations such as dance, sport, drama, music, and other activities. These were formerly provided by adult and community education, plus FE colleges and HE extra-mural courses. Although all these courses came to be vocationally badged and assessed, they were unusual and exceptional instances of the ‘education for its own sake’ that is fondly imagined by some teachers at all levels to animate all their students.

Tertiary level learning is more or less specialised and not comprehensive like compulsory Primary and Secondary. Ideally, such specialisation towards the development of an expertise (following the vocational tradition of an academic apprenticeship) would be undertaken on the basis of the more general Secondary education suggested above for all but specialist state schools. In comparison, in what can be called traditional FE it was part of lecturers’ occupational identities that colleges – unlike schools – ‘never failed anyone’ and  – unlike universities – ‘never turned anyone away’ but found something for all applicants by affording access to courses from special needs to post-graduate. It is to this open model of learning that Tertiary level learning full- and part-time and in and out of employment should aspire to return to meet the Covid Generation’s entitlement to lifelong learning.




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