Time for change – insights from our COSMO Youth Panel

By Erica Holt-White on January 16th, 2024.

Hearing from members of the Sutton Trust COSMO Youth Panel on their current circumstances and next steps.

2024 is a big year for the COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities (COSMO) Study cohort. The vast majority are heading into the first full year of their chosen destination post-school, whether that be university, a full-time job or something else.

In light of this milestone, it was fantastic to catch up with some of the Sutton Trust COSMO Youth Panel recently, a smaller group of the same age range who we’ve been working with to inform the COSMO Study (led by ourselves, University College London and the Centre for Longitudinal Studies). Throughout our research with this cohort, we’ll be speaking to the Youth Panel, to help us to shape the issues we explore in the main study. In this session, we heard about what some of the group chose to do after leaving school, as well as how they currently felt about their futures.

There was certainly a sense of excitement amongst this group of young people about getting into something new. Some were also relieved that the period of secondary education, hugely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, was over. But it was clear that issues identified through wave 2 of the COSMO study, including poor mental wellbeing, were still affecting them.  

Big decisions

Reflecting on their current circumstances, some from the panel felt they had entered a more mature stage of their lives, with new challenges to overcome, such as managing their own finances. One panellist said that even though they still felt young, the pandemic and changes in the financial climate in particular had led them to maturing more quickly.

It was interesting to hear that guidance on their next steps from school seemed to be more diverse than in younger years – encouragingly, the panel shared they had learnt more in year 13 about apprenticeships and other technical routes. But it was clear that university guidance still dominated the advice given in school for this group.

We asked them what questions they would put in front of young people in a study such as COSMO, and several of their suggested questions focused around post-18 decisions. They included ‘Did you choose university because it was what you wanted or because it was what everyone else was doing it?’ and ‘Is your chosen path one that you dreamt of doing, or one you felt the need to do for reasons such as finances, approval from parents/society?’. This further emphasises the issues identified in both waves of COSMO so far regarding the pandemic’s impact on future plans.

Mental health challenges

We also shared COSMO’s recent findings on mental and physical health. They did not seem surprised to hear that 44% of the COSMO cohort were classified as experiencing high psychological distress– they told us they had seen more and more students taking time off school because of their mental health over the past academic year. Worries about exam results were mentioned as a significant cause of mental distress.

The findings on bullying and harassment – including that 27% of COSMO respondents had experienced some form of harassment during the past year – really shocked our group of panel members. One young person said they thought that after the distressing toll of the pandemic people would want to express kindness and care, not the opposite.

After sharing that 31% of students still felt the pandemic was negatively impacting their mental wellbeing, some panellists could relate to this, and said they were still struggling with some aspects of socialising, such as going to the gym, following long periods isolated at home.

Continuing financial difficulties

As the conversation continued to flow, one theme that these participants kept coming back to was the cost of living. They were struggling with balancing the costs of education and personal life, with some expressing that student finance such as maintenance loans were not high enough.

Interestingly, this reflects our findings from polling in early 2023, which showed working class students were particularly struggling due to the cost of living crisis: 33% had skipped meals to save food costs and they were more likely to say their financial situation had worsened compared to the past academic year. Our research towards the end of 2023 also highlighted how maintenance support is not keeping pace with students' living costs, with working class students spending less on essentials than their middle class peers.

Some had decided to take a gap year to save for university, as the thought of paying for halls, transport and bills was daunting. There were even concerns about the stress of finding and affording accommodation after leaving halls – even though this was almost 2 years away for those on a gap year. One panellist shared that second years they knew were struggling to afford heating this winter.

Panellists also shared they were working two jobs to be able to save enough for their future studies. Additionally, one full-time first year student was working to make sure ends met.

These stories highlight why our upcoming work on student finance and the cost of living crisis are so important: it emphasises the extent of the issues members of the COSMO panel shared with us, which can help to highlight the need for change and what interventions are needed. 

What happens next?

Thanks to the COSMO Youth Panel we can get additional insight, alongside the main COSMO Study waves, of the challenges facing this cohort of young people. We will be working with the panel on an ongoing basis, giving them space to share their views and experiences.

Members of our panel urgently want to see improvements to local services like youth centres to better support young people, particularly in disadvantaged areas. They were also keen to see better online resources offered for those struggling with their mental health and those needing financial advice. But ultimately, the main message we heard from panellists was: ‘we want our voices to be heard’.

Policymakers need to do more to listen to the voices of young people like the ones on our panel, and we will continue to highlight the issues facing this generation.