A terrible year for 18 year olds

If it’s been a bad year for education, it’s been a terrible one for 18-year olds.

At the end of March, thousands were suddenly informed that summer A-level exams were cancelled and that alternative arrangements would be put in place. Released from the worry and stress that these exams inflict, students were left to sit out the summer, not really knowing how grades would be awarded, isolated from friends, missing the social events associated with leaving school.  Results day pre-empted further stress and worry — grades issued and then reissued, plans rethought and then further revised.

Despite initial fears by universities that after this year’s A-level debacle many might defer their places, more young people than ever signed up for university — a similar situation occurred after the financial crash, when young people also faced increased insecurities and declining employment prospects. But government, focussing almost entirely on reopening schools (hoping that this would allow parents to get back to work), gave little thought to the consequences for infection rates of thousands of students moving across the country to the confined spaces of campus residencies. Universities, either locked into contracts with private sector providers, or as businesses, reliant on ‘customers’ bringing in money after weeks of closure, did little to prevent this.

As a consequence, rather than the excitement of ‘freshers week’ hundreds were confined to rooms and without proper facilities — some of those new to campus and trying to make social contacts have been fined by universities for breaking social distancing requirements. Lectures and (in many cases) also tutorials have been put online.  Partying students rounded on by the tabloids were condemned and organisers threatened with expulsion by university leaders, but with public opinion clearly behind a ‘stranded generation’ – authorities quickly changed their tune. As a result, emergency ration boxes were replaced with proper food! 

According to a National Union of Students survey, new university students have become more politically aware as a result of the pandemic. There has been a growing students resistance. ‘9k 4?’ posters decorate windows and grassroots activist groups have sprung up across the UK, with rent strikes starting on several campuses.   In Manchester students promptly pulled down fences that had been erected overnight and patrolled by security guards – the university has now refunded the equivalent of 4 weeks rent. 

Yet compared to the actions of their privileged predecessors from the post-war years and as with the protests about bungled A-level grades, levels of opposition have so far continued to be both localised and relatively modest – this says as much about the changing aspirations, potential vulnerabilities, but also the atomisation and fragmentation of current students.

Those school leavers not signing up for HE and trying to enter the labour market face mounting barriers. The ‘kick-start’ initiative, a £2bn plan to finance 300,000 six-month work placements for young workers not able to find employment, is reported to have attracted just 4000 employers and created 20 000 jobs. Without an injection of funds and a leading role for the public sector, the future of the scheme can only be in doubt.  Meanwhile, apprenticeship opportunities (still being promoted by government as the main alternative to university study) continue to dwindle, with only a third as many starts this year, for those under 19 (just 5000).

With the economy predicted to be suffering the effects of the pandemic by the time of the next election, the scarring effect on this group of young people both economically and emotionally, could last years.  We must continue to push for reforms across education but these must be accompanied by wider changes to the economy and employment — training in new skills but also employment guarantees in a Green New Deal, a revamped health and care system or in other 21st century industries.

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