I try to go for a walk early every morning – a half hour turn around the streets near home. Although it’s an urban walk, as the mornings have got lighter, there are unmistakable signs of spring: bulbs in verges, trees coming into leaf and into blossom, birdsong. It’s a reminder that behind the timetables of roadmaps and vaccination there is a deeper routine at play, and one largely ignorant of the pandemic. The seasons, as Joni Mitchell has it in The Circle Game “they come round and round…we’re captive on the carousel of time”.
We’re coming to the end of a gruelling winter, and an equally gruelling period of teaching, working and responding to the demands of lockdown. Almost everyone – I’ve learnt, over the past year that it is sensible always to preface the word “everyone” with the word “almost” – is ready for a break, and the Easter weekend provides that. We may not be able to travel for an Easter getaway, but we can pause and reflect on the demands and the impact of the past year and the prospects for a future – not, as I said in a recent blog, a Covid-free future, but a post-pandemic world.
Last week’s British Academy report on the impacts of the pandemic made for sobering reading. Over almost a hundred and eighty pages it enumerated impacts, including widening geographic inequalities in health and wellbeing, local economic risk and resilience, and poverty, accompanied by worsening social development, relationships and mental health. These impacts, argued the report, vary according to age, gender, race and disability, and levels of social deprivation. The report looks ahead to a decade of the impact of Covid, and challenges government and society together to think about how to respond – resetting skills budgets, entrenching the focus on support for mental health, strengthening local community infrastructure, improving economic resilience.
It’s almost certainly the case that any consensus about the response to Covid will fracture as politicians and policy makers grapple with these long-term consequences from different ideological and economic positions, and as government struggles to meet the long-term economic cost of Covid, currently measured in tens of billions of pounds of additional government borrowing which will, over time, need to be paid down. Responding to that will test political will and national cohesion – and we probably approach the questions in poor shape after a decade and a half in which politics has become more ill-tempered and we have become more divided as a nation.
For those of us who work in universities – indeed, throughout education – there is an overwhelming moral concern. Covid is a disease which has been most severe in the already vulnerable, and we have rightly imposed tough measures to protect and shield them. Every sector of society has suffered in what is now a full year of restrictions: a year is a significant slice of anyone’s life. It calls to mind those myths and legends in which a quest is pursued for “a year and a day” – it was meant to imply “a very long time”. But it’s an even larger proportion of life for the young. We’ve asked – and rightly so – young people to put their lives on hold for what must feel to them an enormous part of it. The sacrifices we have asked them to make include hugely disrupted education, social lives, cultural experiences, the ability to explore locally, nationally or globally. The losses are in delayed and lost learning, in lost part-time jobs, in lost travel opportunities, lost experiences. These losses will be measured in years to come.
So far the government’s response to this has been inadequate for the young. Support for the two million students who have lost jobs and paid rent for accommodation they cannot use has been made available, but at a total of £70m it doesn’t begin to meet the scale of need. The budget for addressing lost learning in schools is more – at about £1bn – but that’s a small fraction of the near £30bn cost of the education budget for a year. By contrast, something over £20bn was spent on an inadequate test and trace system. The Budget made no further provision for the young. For me, the big post-pandemic challenge is inter-generational equity. We all need to put the needs of the young centre-stage: the generation who have endured restrictions which have taken a year of their childhood and youth and had a significant impact on their mental health.
The British Academy report is weak on this intergenerational challenge, but this is – of course – where universities can and must play a prominent role in leading the world out of the pandemic. That means imaginative planning to ensure that course provision is flexible and responsive; it means working closely with partners to ensure that it is learners who are at the centre; it means embedding universities’ roles in local economies and communities.
If the rhythm of the seasons is one unchanging feature of life, there’s another immutable fact about life which we realise more and more as we grow older: we never get our youth back. We can’t give the young back the last year. We all of us need a break over Easter – I’m certainly aiming to switch off for a few days – but as we look ahead, our responsibility as a society is to make our decisions with the interests of the young in mind.