Noah Jones, 18, aims to study psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. “It’s the perfect uni for me. It’s right on my doorstep and the course is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. But since Covid-19, he’s questioning his decision. “The lack of information has taken its toll and I feel stressed before I’ve even arrived. I’m thinking about going into the care sector instead,” he says.
Other prospective students have similar concerns. “I’m mostly worried I won’t get that cliche first-year experience,” says 18-year-old Hannah Carr*, who was hoping to study business at the University of Liverpool. “Events like freshers’ week help with making friends and the possibility we may have to start university as online classes is a daunting one. Imagine not being able to see the faces of the other people on your course for possibly months?”
Three years is a long time and many students are anxious about investing in a university experience that is not going to be the one they were expecting. In the ordinary world, if you were having doubts, the advice would have been to get some work experience or go abroad and figure out what to do. But with the jobs market likely to be in a difficult state for some time, are you better off gaining new skills? And is uni the only way to do this?
Although practical roles such as plumbers, electricians and carers have been some of the least affected by coronavirus, experts advise looking at the bigger picture. “We are likely to see a shift towards automation and jobs that allow remote working will be safer,” advises Manuel Souto-Otero, professor in social sciences at Cardiff University. “You need to take a long-term view on possible career pathways.”
Others agree. “In comparison to a humanities degree, vocational jobs have improved their standing. But in comparison to maths? I doubt it,” says Christopher Rauh, an economics lecturer at the University of Cambridge.
The greatest demand for jobs at the moment is in IT, science and teaching, but there are other options. Rauh says that although the crisis is terrible, it will bring some entrepreneurial opportunities. “A lot of companies won’t survive, but there’s room for innovation and people will be looking for new solutions,” he says. “Any startup that needs a lot of funding will have problems but interest rates will be low, so it could be a time to try things out. Retail space is going to get cheaper and old factories will be empty.”
Others say if you want to be really strategic, take six months and learn to code. “There aren’t a lot of growth areas at the moment, but IT is one of them,” says Raph Mokades, founder of Rare, a recruitment agency for ethnic minority graduates. He thinks writing code is lockdown-proof. “All you need is a laptop and the internet and you’re away.”
Coding bootcamps are one way to do this and most have moved online. Rifke Sadleir, a coder who works with brands such as Converse and Dazed, says since the pandemic started, everyone’s been forced to go digital and there’s huge demand for coders. “You can get involved on platforms such as Instagram and online workshops allow people to learn at their own pace,” she says.
Ultimately, university doesn’t make sense for everyone, especially if it’s studying just for the sake of putting off making a decision about your career. Whatever happens, in the post-Covid-19 world, transferable skills will likely become more important. “Research your options and follow your heart when making life-changing decisions,” advises Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
*Name changed on request
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