As Students Graduate Into The Pandemic, Is University Becoming Useless?

“I’ve gone from graduate hope to depressing reality.”
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University is a socially accepted time of hedonism, exploration and growth. But in a pandemic, the things we take for granted as part of the uni experience – freshers, parties, adventure, sexual experimentation – have all been under jeopardy (research even shows that Covid has forced students into celibacy).

A lot has been written about the duff deal pandemic students have received, but less has been said about the plight facing those who graduated into this strange new world.

The prospects are not booming for the graduates of 2019, 2020 and 2021. Despite employment levels being at an all-time high, salaries and pay rises have failed to keep up with the cost of living. Any job that does promise much-needed perks such as remote and flexible working, a decent pay and healthy work culture is met with fierce competition.

And such gigs are often difficult to obtain for those seeking entry-level jobs.

In fact, the pandemic has affected this cohort in a unique way. Research shows that employment impacts of the pandemic have been concentrated among young people, with 70% of job losses between March 2020 and May 2021 taking place among workers under the age of 25.

So what are graduates, with little to no experience, meant to be doing? Many are finding themselves on Universal Credit (UC), doing poorly paid or unpaid internships, or searching for zero-hours contract work.

And it’s leaving them with one fundamental question: what was the point of university?

Many grads are now coupled with thousands of pounds of debt, a degree which has been unhelpful in the jobs market, and competing against the 2020 cohort, for whom graduate schemes were paused.

Caitlin Yeung is one such person who struggled after graduation. The 24-year-old from Liverpool, who graduated from Roehampton University, was unable to afford the cost of living in London and moved back to Liverpool to live with her mum while looking for work.

Due to the rising cost of living and the congested jobs market, Caitlin was unable to find a graduate role and found herself on Universal Credit, worrying about her future.

“I went into the ‘adult world’ naively thinking that I would be able to instantly find my first job and in the process be able to afford the extortionate prices of London,” she says.

“Being Gen Z certainly isn’t easy and the rising cost of living combined with the pandemic has not only made it harder for me to save for my first home, driving lessons and luxuries such as holidays, but this can also have a detrimental effect on mental and physical wellbeing, especially when I see the struggles that 90% of the country are having when it comes to saving and paying bills and it makes me think, will things ever get easier?

“Losing all faith and hope, I visited my local job centre, signed on to Universal Credit.”

While Caitlin found it challenging being on UC, she quickly got onto the government’s Kickstarter scheme, which pairs 16-24-year-olds on UC with employers for six-month contracts.

She laments how difficult the years have been since university, but doesn’t begrudge the experience.

“The whole process of graduating, signing onto Universal Credit and then becoming a Kickstarter hasn’t necessarily made me have any regrets over my studies in London, as the transferable skills, friends and experiences that I picked up from those three years will stay with me for a lifetime,” she says.

“I actually believe going through what I did before, during and after University has made me a lot more out-going, thick skinned and confident.”

After her six months as a marketing assistant as part of the government scheme, Caitlin is now in a full-time paid position.

Caitlin had to move back home after graduation
Caitlin Yeung
Caitlin had to move back home after graduation

Meanwhile Georgia, a 24-year-old journalist from Brixton, London, questions how useful university has been for her. She also found herself on UC.

“After uni, I managed to secure an internship but it was unpaid, of course, and then I went on to earn 18k to be an editorial assistant at a wellness magazine,” explains Georgia, who chose not to share her last name.

“Then, once the pandemic hit, the publication went into liquidation, and I ended up on Universal Credit. I was being advertised jobs such as ‘manager at Five Guys’ and being told I needed to go for them if I wanted to stay on UC.”

Georgia says the pandemic caused a step backwards for graduates like her, who were only just settling into their first roles.

“I just got my foot in the journalism door, but as soon as the pandemic happened, me and many of my peers were first to go. And then I had to start all over again,” she says.

“The pandemic basically put anyone aged 18-24 in the same group regardless of degree or interests – which just isn’t a good way to support either group.”

Likewise for 23-year-old Matt from Manchester, Covid got in the way of his aspirations. “I’ve gone from graduate hope to depressing reality,” he tells us.

When he graduated in 2020, job prospects were looking bleak and Matt opted to go back into education, in hopes the situation would improve by the time he completed his masters.

“I did the masters degree because it was just really difficult and insecure in summer 2020. I was lucky enough to qualify for a bursary and a fee reduction from the University of Manchester, otherwise I’d have been screwed. Then in October 2021, I finished university and found myself in a similar situation once again.”

It took Matt a month-and-a-half after finishing to find an agency level job. “It’s fine, but I’m very overqualified for it,” he says. “I’m glad to be working rather than on UC, because the £585 I was getting left me £30 a week after rent and bills.”

Matt laments that his high-price degree couldn’t offer him more job stability. “I’m just annoyed that I’m in £75,000 debt and have worked incredibly hard only to face an economy that is incredibly hostile to new graduates looking to enter careers.”

Young people like Caitlin, Matt and Georgia were thrown into these unprecedented times, just as everyone else was, but they have the increased pressures of a competitive market, a high cost of living and tuition fees to be paid back, alongside the mental stresses common at times of turbulence. They also don’t have the once available option of a gap-year abroad, due to ever-changing travel rules and restrictions.

And it’s making them feel left behind, doubting their qualifications, skills and career paths.

“The last two years have just been incredibly tough,” Matt adds, “I feel like young people have been sold a complete lie about our prospects by a government that at best ignores us and at worst treats us with contempt.”