Education Can Lead Our Recovery – But Only If It Is Truly Accessible

Covid-19 threatens the Welsh Government’s poverty-tackling agenda but widening access to further and higher education provides a road to recovery, writes Becky Ricketts.

 

The first half of 2020 has shown us what we really value as a society. 

The pandemic has exposed our vulnerabilities like nothing else, and its devastating impacts will be felt long after a vaccine is found. 

Communities in Wales and the world over have come together by staying apart, making immense sacrifices to protect our most vulnerable. We’ve clapped for our NHS and the key workers who have kept society going, stemmed the spread of the virus and saved countless lives.  

As we reflect and celebrate those who have safeguarded our society, it’s also time to consider how Wales can recover sustainably after this once-in-a-generation event.  

With lockdown easing and infection rates falling, Covid-19 is slowly transforming from a health crisis into an economic one – and it won’t be like any we’ve experienced before. Much like the health crisis, the impacts of the recession will be felt more acutely by our most disadvantaged communities. Without widespread public investment in those communities, we risk entrenching inequalities and deepening the poverty still felt by hundreds of thousands of people in Wales. 

While the consequences of Covid-19 are great, the pandemic also represents an opportunity to rethink our approach to many issues, including tackling poverty and embedding equality. One of the key drivers of social mobility is widening access to higher level skills through education. Investment that helps people from our most disadvantaged communities to access further and higher education will be crucial in promoting an economic recovery that is fair and sustainable.  

70% of students moved home to spend lockdown at their family homes, but our survey found that just 9% of students were given the chance to get out of their housing contracts.

This week, I begin my two-year term as President of NUS Wales. It’s my job to be the voice of students in Wales and make sure all forms of post-16 education work for the students of today and tomorrow.  

NUS Wales and the student movement has always been an advocate for education as a tool for social mobility. We have a long and proud history of standing for people from our most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, and we need to be clear that it is students from those backgrounds who will struggle to access education because of the economic impacts of the pandemic.

We surveyed students across the UK about the impacts of Covid-19 in April and found that 57% of students in Wales work alongside their studies. 47% of those had seen their income reduced or eliminated because of the virus. Despite Wales having the most generous student support package in the UK, many students are still forced to supplement maintenance funding with additional income via part-time employment. 

That employment often takes the form of seasonal jobs; students work over the holidays when they aren’t in college or university. This arrangement means that many working students have not been furloughed, because they weren’t working at the time of the scheme’s cut-off date. To compound this, the majority of those who study full-time can’t access Universal Credit.  

But while many students (and their families) have seen their incomes slashed, living costs have stayed the same. As many as 70% of students moved home to spend lockdown at their family homes, but our survey found that just 9% of students were given the chance to get out of their housing contracts, meaning most students have been paying for vacant properties since March. 

The Welsh Government has thus far not committed to specific support for students facing hardship. The governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland have so far announced totals of £16.4m and £5.6m respectively for colleges and universities to support students who are struggling financially. Last week universities in Wales told the Senedd’s education committee that they are facing more applications to their hardship funds than ever before because of the pandemic, but there has not yet been any government intervention. 

We can’t make the mistake of thinking that student hardship will be alleviated when lockdown lifts. Many jobs that students relied on will not return when the furlough scheme ends; sectors popular with students like hospitality and retail were among those worst hit when we locked down, and are the ones that will need to change most to adapt to social distancing. 

Mental health should also be taken into consideration here. For many students a combination of the isolation of lockdown, uncertainty about their education and increased financial pressures have contributed to poor mental health. The well-being of young people has been increasingly under the microscope in recent years but efforts should be redoubled to recognise the significant impact this crisis is having on mental health.  

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Put simply, students aren’t going to have the same opportunities to support themselves through their education as they did before. Without additional support I’m worried we’ll see students from disadvantaged backgrounds underachieving, dropping out, or being put off further and higher education altogether. If the Welsh Government wants to continue its good work in widening access and participation it must ensure those students are able to study without worrying about paying rent or bills. 

Further and higher education represent a route out of poverty for many. Promoting the benefits of higher skills and supporting colleges and universities to continue operating will be important, but so too will ensuring students from all backgrounds are able to access that education in the first place. Levelling up support for our most disadvantaged students would deliver long-term social and economic benefits and help Wales sustainably grow its way out of the Covid-19 recession towards a fairer future.

With the next Senedd elections less than a year away, the pandemic has provided yet another compelling reason for political parties to make a positive offer to young people. Next May, for the first time, 16- and 17-year olds will be able to vote in a Welsh election. If they’re expected to give their trust – and their votes – to politicians, those politicians must in turn show that they value the futures of young people from all backgrounds. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Becky Ricketts is the President of the National Union of Students Wales.

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