The Sutton Trust champions social mobility through programmes, research and policy influence. Since 1997 and under the leadership of founder Sir Peter Lampl, the Sutton Trust has worked to address low levels of social mobility in the UK. The Trust fights for social mobility from birth to the workplace so that every young person – no matter who their parents are, what school they go to, or where they live – has the chance to succeed in life.
The Sutton Trust support young people from less advantaged backgrounds to access leading universities, apprenticeships and careers. As a response to the covid-19 pandemic, the Trust produced several briefings that identified the potential impacts of the Covid-19 crisis across a young person’s life, from the early years to entering the workplace. It became apparent the crisis will have far-reaching consequences for education, employment and social mobility.
In our brief focusing on access to the workplace, whilst we highlighted some advantages of remote working in terms of outreach work having a wider geographical footprint, we also identified that digital access issues can also be a barrier, preventing some disadvantaged students from accessing the same opportunities as their better-off peers.
To address these issues, strategic approaches will be needed to ensure that the digital divide does not impact disadvantaged young people’s futures as they enter the world of work. Our response discusses the Sutton Trust’s key research findings and recommendations which relate to digital technology’s impact on work-related wellbeing particularly.
Responses to survey questions
- What steps can be taken to mitigate some of the negative consequences of any increasing reliance on digital technology on mental health?
As well as our research work during the pandemic, the Trust has worked with both universities and employers to deliver online access programmes. 6,000 students took part in our opportunities with universities alone. By working with the students who took part, we were able to understand what challenges young people have in terms of digital access, the type of digital content they found engaging and some suggestions of the timetabling needed to ensure students did not spend too much time online and could get the most out of those interactions. As some of this cohort may soon be beginning a work experience placement or internship online, our findings in this area are also of clear relevance.
When organising digital outreach programmes, making sure students are not online for an excessive number of hours per day is not only important for wellbeing but also to allow those without sole access to a laptop for a whole day to participate. Following a survey of our programmes students, we decided to recommend that our own outreach programmes should have a maximum of 3 hours of live content per day, with tasks or other content accessible more flexibly where possible. The longer materials are available online, the more accessible they will be for young people with limited internet access. Time should be dedicated for social interaction and one-to-one conversations, not only to allow students to learn but also to prevent loneliness.
Explicit conversations about mental health for those studying and/or working from home are also important. As part of project looking at inclusion for young people from a wider variety of backgrounds and with different needs, the Trust will be integrating mental health resources and support directly into our digital programmes. We would encourage other access programme providers and employers to do the same.
- Will any increasing reliance on digital technology affect the social interactions of different groups – older people, children, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, home-workers – in different ways? What are the particular social implications for those who cannot, or choose not to, use the internet?
The digital divide has become even clearer during the pandemic, with young people without sole access to a suitable device and-or a stable internet connection (or indeed a quite space to work) missing out on connecting with peers, lecturers, colleagues and potential employers alike. The Sutton Trust’s research in this area is discussed further in our response to the ‘work’ section of the consultation.
- How will any long-term trend towards increased reliance on digital technology affect job opportunities and working conditions? What sectors are likely to see the biggest changes? What impact might these changes have on job satisfaction?
The Trust is concerned about the pandemic’s immediate impact on job opportunities for young people, particularly in the hospitality and retail sector. These two sectors are often where young people can find part-time opportunities while studying, but both have been heavily impacted by the national and local lockdowns imposed this year, leading to many redundancies and fewer opportunities. In polling of undergraduate students carried out in April, the Trust found that 30% of students were less able to afford study because of the pandemic, with those outside Russell Group institutions more likely to have such financial concerns. 34% of students reported that they have lost a job, had reduced hours, or not been paid for work completed. Students at Post-1992 universities were more likely to have suffered work-related losses.
For disadvantaged students particularly, part-time jobs are a vital means of financial support. Indeed, Sutton Trust research has found that while students from all socio-economic backgrounds are similarly likely to take on paid work, those from poorer backgrounds are more likely to work to cover their basic living costs, which aren’t covered by their loan or by contributions from their parents.
A shift to online shopping during lockdown has contributed to thousands of job losses across the retail sector. This is concerning as this is a sector where young people often find part-time employment. Therefore, it will be vital for other means of financial support to be made available for students facing financial difficulty whilst studying as well as for those saving up before heading to university. This could be in the form of hardship funds from universities or emergency grants from the government. Such support is particularly important in the coming few years as the country faces other pressures on the job market due to the recession.
There are also potential impacts on the graduate labour market from the economic effects of the pandemic and any subsequent increases in digital reliance. The Trust’s findings regarding the digital divide (presented earlier) should be considered in this context. Not all young people will have access to the resources needed to take part in placements or start a new graduate role remotely, for example access to the internet, a laptop or a quiet workspace. Yet these opportunities are increasingly important stepping stones to careers.
The Trust recommends that employers should take steps to make online working as accessible as possible; they could provide laptops and/or (where possible) open up part of their physical workplace for those with unsuitable space at home. It is also vital that employers do not see the increase in remote placements as an opportunity to not pay interns. Even when students are working remotely, employers should be paying interns for their work.
- Will different parts of the UK be affected differently? Does an increased reliance on digital technology offer opportunities to improve economic wellbeing in different parts of the UK?
In our impact brief on employment and COVID-19, employers reported that they had moved several programmes like work experience placements online, sometimes uploading content to a platform for students who missed out on a place. This allowed organisations to reach a larger number of students further away from their main offices, as they were closed during the pandemic. It is encouraging to see this improved outreach, particularly to disadvantaged students further away from large cities who may not be able or afford to travel to or live in expensive cities like London. The growth of online work experience opportunities has meant that those who are typically excluded geographically from valuable work experience can take part and interact with other young people as well as both academics and employers.
If digital programmes like online work experience continue beyond the pandemic, there is a clear opportunity to improve economic wellbeing for disadvantaged young people outside of major cities.
- Do workers have the digital skills that will be needed as jobs change? What additional training is required to ensure that the workforce is equipped with digital skills?
If required skillsets for particular industries do change, young people heading into the workplace should be adequately prepared. It is during education where disadvantaged students can learn and develop attributes such as digital skills. It is therefore particularly vital that any change in required skillsets for any industry to be reflected in how and what young people are taught. Without this, young people may be blocked out from new opportunities in the digital world. The combination of learning and on the job experience of an apprenticeship is particularly promising when it comes to adapting skills learning to the needs of a fast-moving economy, so it is vital both that apprenticeship opportunities grow, and that they are open to those from all backgrounds.
Furthermore, if a higher need for digital skills comes alongside an increase in further education and technical qualification routes, it is important that advice and guidance, regarding options such as apprenticeships, are improved. The Trust has recently called for improvements in online guidance as well as for support for schools so they can to provide good quality careers advice on apprenticeships as an alternative to university. This should happen alongside increased engagement between education providers and employers to provide opportunities to gain understanding of apprenticeship routes
- In order to maximise the opportunities offered by an increasing reliance on digital technology, is there a case for greater investment and faster roll-out of broadband?
There are clear regional disparities in broadband access, particularly in rural and coastal areas. The Trust would agree that there is a case for greater investment in internet access so that young people can have access wherever they live.
The Trust’s research throughout the pandemic uncovered stark digital inequalities not just related to internet connections but also access to internet-enabled devices. Thousands of disadvantaged young people face digital access problems, preventing them from taking part in both academic and work-related activities.
The Trust carried out polling to examine digital access for school pupils who were applying for university this year across the country at the start of the pandemic. While most students reported sufficient access to the resources they need, a sizeable minority, 9%, did not have sole access to a laptop, computer or tablet, and 7% did not have a good enough level of internet access. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds were twice as likely to not have adequate access to the resources needed. 15% of working-class students reported not having an adequate access to tech, compared to just 7% of better-off students, with similar findings for internet access (12% vs 6%).
Current university students were also surveyed; 7% did not have access to a laptop and 6% had insufficient internet access.  Students from lower socioeconomic groups were slightly more likely to lack access to internet and technology. However as with many such studies, these estimates are likely to be an underestimate, as those experiencing digital poverty are by definition a difficult to reach group.
To reduce the digital divide, the Trust has welcomed previous initiatives such as the government’s national rollout of over 200,000 laptops in schools, although there have been several issues, such as the speed of rollout and allocation of devices, that should be tackled in any future expansion of the scheme. Companies have also stepped in – for instance, XTX markets were able to provide funding to the Trust for 200 laptops to send to students participating in our programmes. But there is still work to be done to reduce the divide; universities and employers should recognise the access needs of their students and staff, providing laptops and internet dongles where possible.
The Trust has also welcomed the initiatives of organisations like Vodafone, who have given free internet access to over 250,000 students for the coming winter. Similar investment in laptops/tablets is also required.
- Who will be disadvantaged by any long-term trend towards home working? How will it affect people without adequate broadband or people who lack an appropriate workspace at home?
There is a risk that a growth in homeworking could result in young people missing out on vital networking opportunities and experience of the office environment, which are major development opportunities for disadvantaged students in particular who have fewer pre-existing connections and work experience. To prevent this from happening, employers should ensure there are plenty of online opportunities for employees to connect and, where possible, meet in person.
Furthermore, our response has already highlighted the issues surround digital access and broadband connections. In our research carried out during the first lockdown, we identified problems including young people sharing space with people at home or not having a dedicated space to work in shared accommodation. If working in the family home or living in shared housing after graduating, it is likely that these issues will continue to affect this group as they enter employment.
The Trust carried out polling to examine digital access for school pupils who were applying for university this year across the country at the start of the pandemic. While most students reported sufficient access to the resources they need, a sizeable minority, almost 1 in 5 (17%), had either insufficient or not at all sufficient access to a suitable study space. Almost a quarter (23%) of working-class students reported not having an adequate space to study in, compared to almost half the proportion (12%) of better-off students
Current university students were also surveyed in April; insufficient study space was the biggest issue, with 23% of students reporting this. This issue was more common for disadvantaged students, with students from working class backgrounds (C2DE) slightly less likely to have access to a suitable study space (26% reported they did not have sufficient access, compared to 22% of students from middle class families (ABC1)).
Whilst issues relating to workspace are logistically harder to tackle than digital access problems, particularly during lockdowns, employers should open a safe working space for those who need it where possible.
- To what extent could home-working enable access to job opportunities for people currently excluded from the workplace (or from certain jobs)?
As with growth in digital work experience and outreach programmes, an increase in homeworking could grant access to roles for young people that would not usually be in their geographical reach. This is particularly beneficial for disadvantaged young people who may not be able to move away from home at the start of their professional career. However, home-working roles will not be accessible for some disadvantaged young people if issues such as home internet access are not taken into account and managed accordingly.
Ownership of digital technology
10 December 2020
 Unpublished data from the Sutton Trust – polling of recent graduates carried out at the end of 2019, graduates who worked during term time and exam periods while at university were asked why they had done so. Half of graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds worked to cover their basic living costs compared to 46% of those from 11 better-off backgrounds.