The cumulative crises facing young people

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The cumulative crises facing young people
Date31st Oct 2022AuthorGeorge Chittock-NashCategoriesStudent Life

Students are facing the effects of cumulative crises: the lockdowns and concerns over centre assessed grades have now been replaced by a creeping sense of unease about what is to come. These challenges are difficult for our young people to experience as discrete events that would arguably be far easier to mitigate against. They merge into one issue and often result in an overwhelming feeling of despair; add to this the cost of living increase and we see our conversations changing… no longer so much about where students wish to progress, but how they will afford to prioritise their learning. 

At the Eastern Colleges Group – four further education providers working together in Suffolk - students are now struggling to afford their travel to college. This is a great deal of money for families to find and it is forcing students to make decisions on where to study based on geographical location alone. More and more of our students are finding part term work to supplement their additional costs, and whilst this is admirable, it is concerning in equal measure. A proportionate amount of paid employment is not an issue, but some students are attempting to juggle a significant working pattern with studies and often with caring responsibilities for younger siblings. Students looking for ways to increase their income can also become vulnerable to organised crime, and our most vulnerable students may see this as an opportunity to balance an unwieldy load.   

We see that more students are also deferring university entry as they grapple with a choice between a period of significant spending and an opportunity to start earning a proper wage. Part-time employers are persuasive in their arguments for them to convert to full-time employment, and it is easy to see how this is attractive to those for whom higher education represents, as they see it, a lifetime of debt. I feel strongly that the media as a whole are negligent in misrepresenting the costs associated with going to university; they should offset reporting on high debt and costs with the actual repayment structure and the thresholds which apply. The truth, as we know in the education sector, is that a degree is usually an investment in their futures. These qualifications will allow our students to secure a career in which they will likely thrive, and they will be able to pay debts back once they are in a stable financial position. In the unlikely event that this does not happen, the debt will disappear… this is not the news that our students often recall from the many articles they encounter. It is true that the lifetime earnings differential is now less clear-cut than it once was, but the employment conditions afforded to graduates are typically more secure, whereas in the wider economy, goalposts are constantly changing. For instance, policing is becoming a graduate profession; this shifting landscape suggests that there will be narrower career openings left available to non-graduates in the future.

At ECG, we see a creeping rise in poor mental health as a result of these worries. In turn, we are worried about the burden of concern that our students carry and are doing all we can to support them with this. We have, for example, introduced welfare teams across the Suffolk Academies Trust, to compliment the outstanding Personal Progress Tutor system. We have also invested in walking therapy programmes and provided food banks and formal interview wear for our most vulnerable students. Pastoral provision and outstanding wraparound care has never been so important, and we believe that they will soon become the leading criteria when choosing where to study. Education should not be a luxury entitlement. Young people should be allowed to be excited about their futures and the opportunities available to them, without needing to choose between their bus fare, food, heating, or college. But students and their families will of course prioritise their most basic needs, and this will mean that their further education will increasingly lose out to immediate and fundamental necessities.  

In practical terms, we need the Government to support us to support our students:

  • We need the discretion to be able to use funding to meet pastoral needs as we see fit and to be able to reduce barriers to learning
  • Students going to university require a cost-of-living support package to allow them to follow their dreams and continue the momentum they have gathered whilst at college
  • The ESFA need to alter the funding criteria for bursary students, which are outdated and gathering dust whilst the world moves on and our students’ needs have changed.

In summary, allow schools and colleges the flexibility to spend the money to reduce the barriers for each individual. We are capable of making this decision: we know our students and we want to see them excel. 

Ultimately, we need to pull together as a society to lift this gloomy veil, to help young people to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and stop them from wallowing in cumulative crises. We can nurture them, with the right financial support, to be the best they can be and to progress to a career with prospects.  

George is Group VP for students and admissions at the Eastern Colleges Group, which comprises a GFE college with HE provision, an original 16-19 academy, and a 16-19 free school - all SFCA members. 

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