EUniWell Policy Commission: Young People and the Legacy of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Paul Vallance discusses his work with EUniWell and the policy commission he was involved in looking at the education, employment, and mental health of young people across Europe.

Since 2020, the University of Birmingham has been a member of EUniWell, an EU-funded alliance of 11 universities across Europe that work together to support the well-being of their students, employees, and the wider communities in which they are located. As part of this, a team from Birmingham led a Policy Commission investigating the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people (15-24-year-olds). The final report from this project has recently been published.

The lines of enquiry for this Policy Commission focused especially on the education, employment, and mental health of young people across Europe. In particular, there was a concern that the pandemic could deepen inequalities in these dimensions of well-being along divisions of socioeconomic background, gender, and ethnicity. A call for evidence disseminated across the EUniWell network resulted in submissions of research studies, examples of good institutional practices from the partner universities, and feedback from engagement events with young people in local schools. This mixed evidence base was supplemented by a search of the wider academic and policy literature related to the topics of concern.

An important theme that emerged from the review of this evidence is that many of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were not transitory in nature, but will continue to shape the lives of young people in the future. In the near term, this will include their influence on the paths that teenagers and young adults follow over the next few years as these age cohorts progress further through the education system and into the labour market. On a longer timescale, however, there is also a danger that the ‘scarring effects’ of educational disruption, insecure employment, and poor mental health experienced over the last three and a half years will be a lasting burden on the well-being of those groups most affected by the crisis.

Even with the threat to public health posed by the coronavirus now having faded, government policies should therefore still prioritise support for young people to help mitigate and reverse the enduring effects of the pandemic. This has arguably become even more pressing over the past year given the cost-of-living crisis across Europe that risks compounding some of the most serious impacts of the pandemic on the economic well-being of vulnerable young people.

This changing context frames the seven policy lessons that are identified in the final report. Reflecting the geographical scope of EUniWell, these are targeted at the level of the European Union, as well as individual national/regional governments and universities.

  1. Focus on the legacy of the pandemic for young people
  2. Build on EU training and employment support programmes
  3. Prioritise the well-being of young people in the post-pandemic recovery
  4. Engage young people in shaping their future
  5. Commission longitudinal research into the effects of the pandemic
  6. Support the mental health of (higher education) students
  7. Leverage the civic role of universities to support all young people

The EU is the common environment shared by almost all members of the EUniWell alliance. Along with Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (Ukraine), the exception to this is now the University of Birmingham. However, most of the seven lessons drawn here remain as relevant to the UK as other European countries. There is, therefore, a need for the UK government to ensure that its young citizens have access to similar opportunities as their peers in the EU and that public authorities and services at a sub-national level across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have the capabilities and resources to deliver on this policy goal. This is particularly relevant in a city like Birmingham with a very large population of young people under 25.  

Since the early stages of the pandemic, the European Union has taken a number of forward-looking steps to support the participation of young people in a post-crisis economic recovery. For instance, a reinforced Youth Guarantee aims to ensure that all EU citizens under 30 will receive a good offer of employment, continued education, or training within four months of becoming unemployed or leaving education. The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan also includes universal commitments to equal opportunities in the labour market, fair working conditions, and social protections that will especially benefit young people.

The UK Shared Prosperity Fund, launched in 2022 to replace access to the EU Structural and Investment Funds, includes provision for high-quality skills training tailored to local economic needs. To function as an effective substitute for the Structural Funds, however, this new Shared Prosperity Fund will have to address the funding gap faced by areas in the North and Midlands and be extended in a way that allows sub-national actors to make longer-term strategic plans beyond its initial three-year allocation.

In both the EU and UK, employment and skills policies targeted at young people should also be accompanied by a focus on working with educational institutions, employers, and healthcare services to improve their mental well-being. The EUniWell Policy Commission found wide-ranging evidence of the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of groups including adolescents, higher education students, and young people experiencing unemployment and/or economic insecurity. There is therefore a danger that, if left unaddressed, the legacy of this poor mental health during a key phase of their lives could prevent some young people from effectively taking advantage of employment or training opportunities that become available to them in a post-pandemic economy.     

To find out more about this project join the authors of the report for an online event on 17th October:

EUniWell Open Lecture Series: Young People, Well-being, and the Covid-19 Pandemic – Learning for the Future from the EUniWell Policy Commission

This blog was written by Paul Vallance, Research Fellow, City-REDI, University of Birmingham.

Disclaimer: The opinions presented here belong to the author rather than the University of Birmingham.

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