By Patrick Vakaoti
COVID-19 marks a significant generational moment for young people. The world as they knew it was transformed as countries went into lockdown, workplaces and entertainment precincts closed, physical movement and social connections were restricted. Schools suspended classes and universities moved teaching online. The economy, the engine room of capitalism plummeted into a recession, to many experts the worst since the 1930s depression (Wearden & Jolly, 2020). For tertiary students, a cohort of young people often cushioned from economic shocks the impact is significant.
Many tertiary students work whilst studying. Reasons for this range from gaining work experience, and earning to either supplement the family income or offset the cost of student loans which in New Zealand average about $NZ22,000. Prior to the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, many working tertiary students spoke of hardships; working and becoming vegetarian to afford food, to pay for rent and some dropping out completely (Woolf & Moore, 2018). These scenarios are being exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19. As New Zealand went into lockdown on March 25 many tertiary students, working as casual and part-time workers were left without employment. They join the global unemployment numbers estimated to increase between 5.3 and 24.7 million people (ILO, 2020).
The pandemic has a more profound impact on the disadvantaged. In New Zealand Māori and Pacific students generally “show higher attrition rates, lower participation rates and are underrepresented in bachelor level programmes compared to non-Māori students” (Wikaire et al., 2017, p.301). These students and others from less privileged backgrounds will bear the brunt of the pandemic because many of them are working students. The loss of work, transition to online learning and drastic change in the nature of their social interaction has increased uncertainty and angst compounding existing employment precarity and livelihood security concerns even at the best of times. Young people are reporting an increase in mental health challenges.
To cushion the economic and welfare impact of COVID-19, countries announced initial stimulus packages; 3 trillion in the United States (BBC, 2020), 130 billion in Australia (Karp, 2020) and 12.1 billion in New Zealand. Subsequently the New Zealand government announced a $130 million student support package, allowing students to take out an additional $1000 for study related expenses on their student loans. Universities are also taking action, including establishing hardship funds. However, these strategies are short-term in nature, and the government support package has been criticised for putting students in more debt.
Longer term strategies are needed. The United Nations (2020, p. 3) has suggested “promoting the narrative of opportunity…to learn how to engage youths in a work culture in flux”. This suggestion does little to deal with the issues of precarious employment. It returns young people to the politics of individualisation, making them responsible for secure work should they need it or taking initiative during this time of need. It neglects the reality that young people have been constantly adapting to the fluidity of the employment market.
Young people are a resilient cohort and can effectively mobilise during a crisis. In the days following the lockdown in New Zealand, the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) activated its network with members lending support to the elderly and childcare support to children of essential workers (Kenny & Guildford, 2020). “In Colombia, Ghana, Iraq and several other countries, young peacebuilders and humanitarians are delivering supplies to frontline health workers and people in need” (Guterres, 2020). While admirable, young people should not be exploited nor should they sacrifice themselves for causes that are larger than themselves. The pandemic and its impact are systemic in nature and require a reimaging of a system where people, including young people, are placed at the centre. This is imperative because young people, including tertiary students, often hold casual jobs that do not qualify them for any form of social and health protection.
Young tertiary students will have the burden of the future weigh heavy on their minds. Governments have the responsibility of allaying these fears. In New Zealand, tertiary students currently benefit from free fees (referred to as the fees free scheme), for the first year of their education. Perhaps this is the opportune time to extend the gesture into the second year of tertiary studies. This may also be a time to renew conversations on student debt repayment. Some experts have even suggested cancelling student debt.
Securing the future of the world post the COVID-19 pandemic means securing the future, livelihood and wellbeing of young people. Events like the Arab Spring, recent youth riots in French and British cities and the 2019 protests in Hong Kong demonstrate what youth discontent emanating from unemployment and restrictions on civil liberties can result in. It would be irresponsible and damaging for countries to allow their young population to descend in this way, or set them up to deal with long-term economic, social and material deprivation, and mental health and wellbeing issues. Comprehensive social, economic and wellbeing strategies are necessary to address these concerns.
As restrictions begin to ease in many countries, supporting tertiary education for young people cannot, and must not, rely on their resilience alone to sustain them in the medium and long term. To do so places an immense burden on a group whose importance and susceptibility to risk and harm is often diminished and downplayed. Working students should not be in a position to choose finding work over their education. It is likely that students will transition to more vocational and skills-based learning. Regardless, universities, governments and employers have a critical role in rebuilding the lives of their young students and can do so by actively engaging students in how to meet their needs, listening to their narratives, harnessing their creativity and reimaging the world with them.
Patrick Vakaoti is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Otago.