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Fairness for the COVID Generation

  • 25 March 2024
  • By Sasha Roseneil
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Sasha Roseneil, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Sussex. Sasha is also a qualified psychotherapist (group analyst).

Four years ago, on 26 March 2020, the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown came into force and our lives changed overnight.

As we saw the death toll rise, it was apparent that the elderly, the vulnerable, the sick and all those who cared for them were facing considerable risk. For the younger generation, whose physical health was less in danger, the pandemic led to a series of changes to normal life, the impacts of which are still being felt, even though the intense and unprecedented experience of lockdown is now increasingly hard to remember.

As many researchers predicted and as studies have now shown, the severe disruptions to school children’s education, their home life, and other support networks have created major gaps in their academic and social learning

These effects were global. Nearly 147 million children missed more than half their in-person schooling between 2020 and 2022. And the sad reality is that after lockdowns ended, far fewer returned to the classroom. Current UK government figures show that a fifth of schoolchildren are persistently absent – double the pre-pandemic figure. For those who did return, it was evident that the lockdowns had exacerbated learning inequalities, with the least advantaged being the most affected. 

But it is not just the gaps in academic knowledge and skills that matter: the loss of thousands of hours of in-person social interaction and, with it, disruption to much of what constitutes ‘normal’ psycho-social development, have been hugely impactful. Young people themselves predicted this. During the 2021 lockdown, two-thirds of young people aged 13-25 expected that the pandemic would have a long-term impact on their mental health. In 2022, nearly a third of COVID-generation students said their mental health had worsened since starting university.

University staff care enormously about the mental health and well-being of our students. Lecturers, personal tutors, departmental support staff, professional well-being practitioners, and counsellors are all talking about the enormous wave of mental distress and social anxiety that we see amongst our students. But at the current level of funding – with the fee cap having increased by inflation just once in 12 years – it is going to be more and more difficult for universities to satisfy the rising need for mental health, wellbeing and additional learning and education support. It is estimated that English universities supplemented the cost of undergraduate education by an average of £2,500 per year per student in 2022/233.  

One option would be to increase the tuition fee cap, and there is an appealing simplicity to this. However, this is more than overridden by its basic unfairness.

Young people have had their education, social lives, mental health, and wellbeing damaged by the pandemic. The restrictions imposed on them mostly benefitted other people. It is often said that you can tell a government’s priorities by what it spends money on. Supporting young people by increasing the fees they are expected to repay over several decades would suggest that supporting them is not really a government priority at all.

But there is another solution. The current pupil premium – allocated to schools based on the number of children who meet certain criteria, such as those eligible for free school meals and looked-after children – shows the way. The government could introduce a ‘COVID Premium’ for all COVID-generation school leavers entering further or higher education.

This would provide dedicated funding to support academic skills and personal development. Tailoring the COVID Premium to each university’s student profile would target the largest funding increases at the institutions with the greatest need to intervene to enable students to ‘catch up’, while ensuring that all universities receive additional funding to make good the lost learning opportunities of lockdown, and to embed the best changes in pedagogy and educational technologies (and there are many) that have emerged from the pandemic.

It is also time to recognise the increasing level of demand on universities’ wellbeing and mental health services. Universities offer a wide range of types of support, but to step up fully to the complex challenge of the high levels of anxiety, depression and other forms of psychological distress experienced by today’s students requires significant investment in additional staff, and in new ways of delivering mental health services and developing psychological capital and resilience.

There is a need for a ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing Support Grant’. Like the COVID Premium, it could be tailored, so that universities with the highest number of students reporting mental health problems receive more funding. And universities that themselves train mental health practitioners, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and counsellors could be incentivised to establish ‘University Clinics’, open to all young people – including non-students – in their area.

Such clinics could also offer training placements for students. This would enable the development of best practice in student and young people’s mental health services, which could be shared across a national network of clinical services and would bridge the gap between child and adolescent mental health services on the one hand, and adult services on the other. This could significantly extend the provision for young people that ends abruptly once they leave NHS child and adolescent mental health services, and who are not currently well served by primary and secondary adult mental health provision.

Universities are struggling with long-term under-funding, but the ethical issue here is the wellbeing and long-term success of a generation of young people, rather than universities’ finances. It is surely a national priority to give our young people the opportunity to reach their potential. We cannot wish away the effects of the pandemic. But we must, out of fairness, invest in enhancing the support they now need, and that can be provided by universities, for them to recover lost ground and to flourish.

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  1. Iain MacLaren says:

    The other alternative, of course, is to return to the European norm of removing fees for higher education altogether. Clearly this is already the case in Scotland. In addition, the provision of adequate financial support for living costs and not loans, would all help to remove some of the appallingly stressful experience we are inflicting on our young people. All of this needs funding, but all of it can be funded with appropriate progressive taxation and other government revenue. University staff who are at the frontline of dealing with student distress need to be bolder in their demands and raise the bigger questions.

  2. John says:

    Even before Covid student mental health was clearly declining and becoming a major issue, with the near constant teaching of intersectional victimhood, and oppressorship, in primary, secondary and tertiary education. The additional costs to Universities to provide mental health support and tuition has been borne by an ever increasing dependence on overseas students and organisations such as the CCP’s Confucius Institute. Leaving the sector open to accusations of collusion with the CCP, unsurprising with so many C.I./CCP staff embedded in University administrations.

    So funding for the ‘Covid generations’ additional needs is going to be hard for Universities to find, especially with the CCP reducing the number of students, thus the additional funding they provide, much of which is already committed to building projects to replace dangerous failing older buildings on campus and Halls of residence anyway.

  3. albert wright says:

    Unfortunately this Government is highly unlikely to give you and the sector anything. The votes to be won are too small for action.

    Nor is the next Government going to invest much in HE as the real return on investment has been so low over the last 20 years and other planned action has higher priority.

    The situation in Ukraine gives Defence the highest priority.

    More will be spent and wasted on Housing, the NHS and Infrastructure.

    We all need to recognise that our leaders have really messed up and made so many mistakes and wasted so much money. Without major reform in the way UK Government is elected, managed and run nothing will change for the good.

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