Focus on the impact of COVID-19 on education and training


Navigating the effects of the largest health crisis in modern times, COVID-19, or Coronavirus, will take a considerable and coordinated global effort. The adjustments being made to the 'new normal' mean having to find new ways to work and live, and this includes new approaches to education and training. All aspects of vocational education and training (VET) are being impacted in multiple ways: distancing and self-isolation measures are affecting delivery; economic downturns and closed borders are causing unemployment to rise significantly; the focus of industry is changing in response to consumer needs; skill requirements are shifting drastically and curriculums are running to catch up; and student wellbeing needs a higher level of attention than ever before.

This issue of 'Focus on' offers an insight into new pieces of research and policy addressing the impact of COVID-19 on education and training in Australia, North America, Europe and the United Kingdom.


VET has a pivotal role to play, not just in the post-pandemic economic recovery, but also in the re-skilling and up-skilling of workers to deal with the current crisis. Skill sets and short online courses, many free or at low costs, are being rolled out and a new Undergraduate Certificate has been added to the Australian Qualifications Framework as a qualification to upskill workers displaced by COVID-19. In An investment in productivity and inclusion: the economic and social benefits of the TAFE system, evidence is presented on broad economic benefits of the TAFE system to Australia's future economy, while Skills for recovery: the vocational education system we need post-COVID-19  outlines a number of priority reforms needed to a create a VET system that will support a strong recovery.

A key impact of COVID-19 on education and training has been on the delivery of teaching and training. Apprentices and trainees were severely impacted when social distancing measures were put in place. While it's too early to get a true sense of how the pandemic has affected apprenticeship and traineeship activity, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research's Apprentices and trainees 2020 - March quarter shows apprentice and trainee commencements were down 11 per cent (to 49 015) in the March quarter 2020 when compared with the same quarter in 2019. Turning to previous recessions to see what history can tell us to expect, Impact of coronavirus on apprentices and trainees offers a number of policy responses to help reduce the impact on apprentices and trainees.

Also of concern is the impact of learning from home on educational outcomes and wellbeing of students. Learning at home during COVID-19: effects on vulnerable young Australians: independent rapid response report and Impact of learning from home on educational outcomes for disadvantaged children: brief assessment, are part of a set of six research pieces commissioned by the Australian Government that examine the potential impact of learning from home on the educational outcomes of vulnerable students.

Remote learning is even more challenging for VET students who have practical or workplace components in their course that they are unable to complete due to social distancing requirements. Supporting student wellbeing during COVID-19: tips from regional and remote Australia highlights the importance of teaching practices and the learning environment on student wellbeing and the lessons that can be learnt from the regional and remote students in this study to support students' mental health, wellbeing and success, in the context of learning and teaching online.

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North America

United States

As educational institutions in the US look to return for the 2020-21 school year, the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) seeks to identify best practice for possible instructional scenarios during the COVID-19 pandemic. High-quality CTE: planning for a COVID-19 impacted school year, outlines the specific planning needs of three potential instructional modes: in-person, remote, and blended learning. Issues of access and equity are highlighted as key concerns for each mode, as institutional support for students' basic needs, academic engagement and mental health will become increasingly important during the pandemic. The guide is accompanied by a webinar series that shares ideas for career and technical education (CTE) planning for the upcoming school year, taking into account the implications of ongoing socially-distanced learning.

Student experiences during the pandemic pivot assesses the impact of COVID-19 on students' learning needs, safety and wellbeing. The results, compiled from over 15,000 student responses across 21 colleges, reflect both the strengths and gaps in the institutional approaches to managing new instructional delivery modes and student services. Key insights from the survey show that the most significant challenges students faced were the same as those before the pandemic: school, work and home life balance, concerns for physical and mental health and food and housing security. Students wanted more communication and support from financial aid and academic advising departments and reported a limited sense of belonging and connection to others at their institution. While most non-graduating students were likely to re-enrol for the fall semester, many were uncertain how their graduation timeline would be affected by the pandemic.


Statistics Canada has crowdsourced data from over 100,000 postsecondary students during April 2020, providing a snapshot of how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting students' academic, labour market and financial circumstances. COVID-19 pandemic: academic impacts on postsecondary students in Canada is one of a series of articles exploring this data, focusing particularly on the academic disruptions experienced across Canadian universities and colleges. Disruptions were highest for those studying courses likely to require work placements or practical instruction such as trades and health care. Almost all participants (75 per cent) had at least some of their coursework moved online. Lower levels of disruption were noted for doctoral students, where there is a greater focus on research over coursework. A supporting infographic provides broader findings from the survey.

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In most European countries, many apprentices cannot attend either the school or work-based components of their apprenticeships. With the aim of 'not losing the year', the report How are European countries managing apprenticeships to respond to the COVID-19 crisis? reveals that, in general, countries are making efforts to keep up with school-based learning through distance learning arrangements, and to maintain contracts with companies, but most are still working out how to deal with the final assessment. Distance learning has had varying degrees of success, depending largely on the digital skills and availability of providers, and on sectors. Where it is considered safe, in-company training continues and, in general, apprentices whose contracts are not suspended are paid as usual.

VET, with its strong focus on education for work, plays a vital role in youth transitions into the labour market, in employment more generally and, most importantly, in any economic recovery. The impact of COVID-19 on education: insights from Education at a Glance 2020 outlines measures already being taken in European and other OECD countries to ensure the continuation of VET. These include increasing use of online platforms that are more appropriate to VET, providing wage support for apprentice retention, offering flexible skills assessment and awarding of qualifications, and investing in VET to help deal with future skills shortages.

The OECD paper VET in a time of crisis: building foundations for resilient vocational education and training systems suggests long-term lockdown and the accompanying large scale closure of education and training institutions may see learning providers having to innovate to enable widespread use of distance learning, including effective assessment techniques. Strategic decisions by governments at this point could see stronger, more resilient VET systems in the future. Issues to consider include engaging with employers and trade unions, planning and financing training in more future-proof sectors and occupations, building digital learning capacity to meet demand and embracing microcredentials and digital badging, embedding digital, basic and socioemotional skills in VET curriculum, providing for vulnerable groups, and maintaining a highly qualified teaching and training workforce.

Digital learning innovations could exacerbate existing disadvantage in relation to access and engagement. Equity of access to education and training is affected by many factors such as reliable and affordable computer and internet access, time away from caring duties, adequate digital skills to engage with online learning, and the quality of the ensuing learning experience. For learners at risk of early learning from VET the pandemic heightens existing challenges. Activities undertaken to support these learners in Germany, Greece, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the UK are outlined in Digital gap during COVID-19 for VET learners at risk in Europe. These include ensuring access to distance education with free equipment and internet access plus support for learners and caregivers in academic and mental health aspects; translating material into languages of ethnic minorities and refugees; and offering digital skills training. 

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United Kingdom

As in Europe, UK apprentices will need assistance to continue and complete their apprenticeship, regardless of any breaks taken as a result of the pandemic. Using working from home as a proxy for resilience, Briefing note: the apprenticeship sector's resilience to COVID-19 examines the ability of apprentices to continue working during the lockdown. The youngest workers and those with the least qualifications will be the least likely to work from home. As many of these young workers are found in the apprenticeships sector, it is more exposed to lockdown effects than other sectors in the economy. The ability to work from home differs by industry; some of the most popular apprenticeships are in retail and hospitality sectors that have been severely affected by lockdown, so transition to remote working will be difficult if not impossible. Taking a different perspective, Making apprenticeships future-fit advocates an increase in the number of apprenticeship places available for young people in the short term and reforming the apprenticeship system in the medium to long term.

Social mobility and COVID-19: implications of the COVID-19 crisis for educational inequality looks at how the most disadvantaged young people will be impacted during their education and into the workplace, with a focus on fair access to higher education and protecting apprenticeships. Despite encouragement from the Department for Education for training providers to move both training and assessments for apprentices online if possible, there is a concern that some apprentices will not have access to the resources needed to access online learning. During the pandemic, employers can pause an apprentice's learning for up to 12 weeks. Providers, however, will not be paid for apprentices during these breaks. This could result in many providers closing, some permanently. This pressure along with a combination of redundancies, furloughing and breaks in learning, may force many apprentices to leave their apprenticeships altogether.

In its discussion paper, Skills: a post COVID-19 system, the University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC) suggests that, while the skills system in the UK is facing new pandemic-related challenges, those existing pre-pandemic remain. These include skills shortages and gaps, increased unemployment and low levels of social mobility and diversity in the workforce. A 'future-fit' system will value the contribution of all forms of education to the skills required for work and for life. It proposes ten recommendations for an education system fully engaging employers, vocational, higher education and other training organisations. If adopted, the skills system would help ensure all individuals and employers had the skills needed for economic recovery.

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Research from other regions


Published: October 2020