Beware the generational backlash – Sarah Atkin

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During lockdown I was listening to a radio phone-in with Dr Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director.   A seemingly minor issue was raised in a call which stopped me in my tracks.   A young man asked Dr Leitch when he’d be able to see his girlfriend again.  A chuckle followed – well…sorry but you’re going to have to wait a while yet for that!  Oh my god, I thought.  Would I have been able to stay away from my significant ‘other’ when young and in the flowering of a new romance? That’s such a big ‘ask’.  So, was this a ‘minor’ issue?  No.  Did it warrant mirth? No.  If I were this young man would I have felt a little ‘dismissed’?  Yes. 

The near blind indifference to the young (of all ages) has been similar on almost every front during this pandemic.  The Glasgow University student debacle is just the latest example.  Policy decisions and pandemic planning has barely factored-in the needs of young people, let alone placed them at the centre of it.  Pandemic media coverage has rarely viewed this crisis from a young person’s perspective either – especially less privileged young people. 

Like many of my generation I spent a great deal of lockdown sifting through old photographs, joining in the multiple Facebook circulars for ‘books that influenced you; albums that defined your life; your all-time favourite movies; etc.’  Memories, memories.  For many it’s been a period for reflection and re-evaluation. 

For our children and grandchildren, lockdown put an abrupt ‘stop’ to the creation of memories.  We shut them up for months, closed their schools, colleges and universities; kept them away from their peers and other significant relationships; messed up their education and pulled opportunities from under them.  Scant regard was paid to the mental health implications of lockdown (even, in some towns and cities closing parks. The only green spaces many families had access to for outdoor leisure and respite.)   At the end of all of this they’ll move into a world of high unemployment, potential economic collapse and dizzying levels of national debt.  

Given what they’ve given up and what’s been screwed up for them so far, from what I’ve witnessed, the upcoming generations have been mightily impressive during this crisis.  They deserve credit for that.  However, the sense of a great deal of generational anger brewing has been palpable.  Now we have further restrictions on life which will impact the young re: work/jobs.  Then the chaos in universities sees students’ vilified. 

The Glasgow University crisis has brought into sharp focus what students now appear to be: product.  Pandemic be damned, we’ll bring them in.  Take the rental and fee income THEN tell them their courses will be online.  Whether intended or not, this is how it looks.  When it predictably goes ‘pear-shaped’ the students are subjected to the most draconian rhetoric and restrictions yet witnessed during this pandemic.   Who wouldn’t feel angry and used?   They must feel like lab rats in an ill-thought through experiment.  Add in the stories of students having to sort out their own food deliveries and flats not even having Wi-Fi, the dereliction of duty by both those running the university and those running education in Scotland is shocking. 

Students were encouraged from across the UK and the globe with a promise that, as far as possible there would be a university ‘experience’.   When did the university know that their academic offer was to be almost entirely online?  Was that information communicated? 

Filling up Murano Village (at Glasgow University) in one ‘big bang’ and not expecting partying is the equivalent of putting an alcoholic to work behind a bar and then blaming them if they have a drink.  Yes, personal responsibility matters but those in authority – people running universities, government – have a duty to design an environment and put in place a set of measures that mitigate risk.  Their job is to plan.  To think.  To figure it out.  Relying on the police to break up parties is not a strategy to prevent the spread of COVID.  It’s the opposite – a reckless absence of strategy.  Also, government ‘guidance’ that spin its way from one highly paid set of officials to another, eventually finding its way to the door of those running our higher education institutions is not my idea of political leadership. 

Beyond the current crisis, how is it going to be sustainable – socially, academically, for  mental health and public health – for large numbers of Year 1 students in large residences like Murano, away from campus, if all their learning is online?  This arrangement is a greater public health risk than were they to have regular ‘face time’ with tutors on campus, with structure and where social interactions can be more controlled. 

This debacle has all the hallmarks of being a ‘moment’ far bigger than itself.  A tipping point.  

We have to do better by the upcoming generations than this.  They need to be at the heart of the country’s economic and social recovery.  To drive it forward.  If not, we’re in for one hell of a generational backlash in the decade ahead. 

Sarah Atkin is a mum and concerned citizen.  She works in education.