For many young people, living their dream of going to university remains an important one. Further study in a STEM related degree has always been a goal for many - although of course there are other equally valuable and beneficial ways to enter future employment, including undertaking Apprenticeships or studying T Levels.
Furthermore, the vital diversity and social inclusion agenda is not a new one. The education sector has continued to drive increased opportunities for the most disadvantaged to consider applying for University. This agenda for widening the pool of young people into STEM has been around for years, and major businesses are making progress - but there is still much work to do.
The wider inclusion and diversity agenda should not be seen as an HR fad or lip service; it has real significance to the performance of organisations and to UK plc, as well as simply being the right thing to do. In a world where we are forecasting significant skills issues, particularly with the challenges of Brexit, near full employment (although unemployment is due to increase) and current demographics, it is something that needs to be challenged very quickly. We are seeing organisations recognise this and address their own hiring process. For organisations that are actively involved with the apprenticeship agenda, this is an obvious starting point. Many employers are therefore looking for young people from more diverse and socially challenged backgrounds to join their apprenticeship programmes.
Society at all levels needs to work harder to communicate more effectively to young people, particularly those from diverse and more disadvantaged backgrounds. We need to avoid the implicit and explicit messages that are often communicated about careers and life pathways, whether in the media or in job adverts. Meeting role models such as STEM Ambassadors and the language and images used play a huge part in this. Social inclusion is a process that ensures citizens have the opportunities and resources necessary to participate fully in economic, social and cultural life and to enjoy a standard of living and wellbeing that is considered normal in the society in which they live. It is a social integration concept which is central to a civilised society.
Although UK youth unemployment has recovered in recent years, some EU countries still have stubbornly high youth unemployment rates. Young people, especially those not in employment, education or training (NEETs) are at high risk of social exclusion. This has severe consequences for these individuals - and also for the economy and society as a whole.
A recent survey, conducted by Savanta for the Sutton Trust, examined how the ongoing cost of living crisis is impacting University students, particularly those from working class families. The worrying findings show that students are under considerable financial pressure, with those from working class backgrounds suffering the heaviest impacts. As a University graduate, I remember the days of making do on a very strained budget. These tight margins make them particularly vulnerable to the cost of living crisis.
The report highlighted considerable financial pressures. Since the start of term in September 2022, 63% report having spent less on food and essentials, with 28% saying they had skipped meals to save on food costs – a shocking statistic. 43% said they had used less fuel (such as electricity or gas) in their homes, 47% had stopped or reduced going out socially with friends and 9% had reduced their attendance or dropped out of student societies.
6% reported moving back in with their family to save money on rent or bills, 16% travelled to campus less to save on transport and other costs - while 14% travelled to campus more for free energy use there (eg heating). 62% said they spent less on non-essentials and 18% avoided buying university supplies they needed for their course such as computers or books – all deeply worrying.
There were even more concerning statistics around young people dropping out of University. 24% of students said they are less likely to finish their degree due to the cost of living crisis, with 4% saying they were much less likely.
For students in their second year and above, 57% said their financial situation was worse this academic year compared to the year before, including 16% saying it was much worse. The proportion saying it had worsened overall was higher for students from working class (66%) than middle class (54%) families.
Rather like my own son’s circumstances, 27% had to supplement their finances by taking a job. According to the report, 11% had received support such as hardship funds from their university, 4% had taken out additional private loans and 2% had used a foodbank or other charity support. Only one third of students said they had not needed any additional financial support due to the rising cost of living.
The report makes several recommendations, including a full review along with more funding for university hardship funds. These damaging statistics – particularly the threat of increasing drop-out rates of students from more challenging socio-economic backgrounds - must remain central to our thinking if we are to maximise the promising talent pool that exists in the UK.
STEM Learning continues to support many pupils at school. In addition to mentoring using STEM Ambassadors, the Nuffield Research Placement scheme is a fantastic opportunity for students to apply skills and knowledge learned at school while providing a meaningful contribution to the work of researchers and in some cases industry professionals. Critically, research placements enable talented students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to develop their STEM skills, increase their aspirations and grow their confidence. Students learn more about different career paths, including apprenticeships and crucially higher education.
Social inclusion is absolutely the right thing to do - and it also makes good economic sense. Left unaddressed, the exclusion of disadvantaged groups will be costly to UK plc. At the individual level, the measured impacts include the loss of wages, lifetime earnings, poor education, and employment outcomes. At the macro level, the cost to businesses in not addressing the STEM skills shortages will be long term decline in innovation and GDP.
Key factors required to promote genuine social inclusion effectively include helping socially excluded individuals and communities overcome the inequalities they face, particularly if they finally achieve their dreams of securing a place at University. Secondly and more fundamentally, promoting equality of opportunities and eliminating discrimination at all levels of society means building inclusive societies that offer equal opportunities to individuals regardless of their circumstances.
Barnado’s Cost of Living report in October 2022 examined how rising living costs are affecting children and young people, and what action could limit its potential impacts now and into their futures. As the cost of living crisis gets more frightening by the day, more children are at risk of being pulled into poverty, or into deeper poverty. More than 1 in 4 of all children in the UK now live in poverty, with millions facing the risk of going hungry. Living in poverty can mean a child is living in a cold home, going hungry, or without everyday essentials. Children in the most vulnerable and precarious circumstances will be among those most at risk. Families with nothing left to cut back on are no longer having to choose between heating or eating – instead they’re unable to afford either. Growing up in poverty can harm children’s life chances, limit their opportunities, hold them back in education, or lead to worse physical and mental health outcomes.
The cost of living crisis is now very much the cost of ‘not living your dreams’ crisis. As a civilised society we need to redouble our efforts to fully access all the incredible STEM talent pool from schools, irrespective of their socio-economic status.
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