Morgan Vella and his friends used to hold high ambitions for what life would look like after graduating high school: leaving their regional Victorian town for university in the city, enjoying a world of busy dormitories, student bars and lecture theatres.
But two years and seven lockdowns later, the Kyabram P-12 College year 12 student says a lot of his friends have simply “given up” and plan to complete their Victorian College of Education (VCE) certificate without an Atar.
“I’m still aiming to get to university but a few of my friends aren’t going at all any more. The pandemic has totally changed their career options because they see them as unachievable,” he says.
Year 12 students struggling through extended periods of remote learning are rethinking career paths due to ongoing uncertainty about how the pandemic will continue to disrupt their lives.
For some, it means delaying university and taking a gap year – once a rite of passage for those privileged to be able to afford lengthy backpacking trips through Europe or Asia.
But with international borders closed for the foreseeable future, entering the workforce and earning a trade has become the realistic alternative.
In July, Morgan co-wrote a petition that gained more than 2,000 signatures online calling for study design to be altered in line with changes made last year due to the impact of remote learning.
The same month, the state government confirmed the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) would continue with the Consideration of Educational Disadvantage (CED) program introduced last year to finalise VCE results.
But it ruled out any changes to the VCE study guide or final exams.
Now amid the state’s sixth lockdown with no certainty on when, or if, face-to-face learning will resume, Morgan says petitions have begun circulating among his peers calling for the cancellation of exams altogether.
Morgan says one friend, who initially planned to be a veterinarian, has now enrolled to join the army, and another has pivoted from tertiary ambitions to entering the police force.
“It’s an entirely different career. It’s so hard, they haven’t done the work, they’re not going to get the result. It’s so sad,” he says.
“Another one of my friends is taking a gap year regardless of whether there’s going to be a lockdown, which kind of defeats the purpose – you’re just going to stay at home.”
Data provided to Guardian Australia by The Careers Department (TCD) program shows there has been a marked interest among school leavers this year in pursuing courses with strong ties to specific industries.
The program is licensed by one in five Australian high schools across regional and metropolitan areas to provide career advice and virtual work experience.
“Prior to the pandemic, I don’t think students were aware of the need to research the job market,” TCD partnerships manager Samantha Devlin says.
“But with job loss [reported] in the media every week, that might be pushing them to more vocational courses.”
Preliminary 2020 data shows a 6.8% increase in applications to building and construction courses among female school leavers alone, while computer science has seen an increase of 7.5% and education 6%.
But the creative arts and humanities have both seen significant decreases in demand, of 5.1% and 6.5% respectively.
Devlin says a decision by the federal government last year to double university fees for some future arts students to fund cheaper degrees for in-demand courses such as teaching, nursing, maths, science and engineering has “definitely” had an impact.
The Notre Dame College Shepparton principal, John Cortese, describes completing high school in a pandemic as “meeting all the signposts along the way, then all of a sudden someone’s ripped them out and you have no certainty where you’re going”.
“For some students, the aspirations they had are gone because they’re not guided anymore, it’s all up in the air,” he says.
The regional Victorian school has run daily video sessions on mental health and wellbeing since a Delta outbreak in Shepparton forced its year 11 and 12 students into self-isolation.
Cortese fears for the “sense of loss” that has accompanied the missing of key milestones like formals, camps and celebrations.
He says more Notre Dame students are considering gap years because they don’t want to face another year of remote learning.
Some 28% of students surveyed by the TCD still want to take a gap year before entering a vocation or further study.
“I still talk about being on campus 40 years down the track because they’re great memories,” Cortese says. “Music festivals, meeting people. But people are making the broader decision in current circumstances [that] university isn’t for them.
National enrolment data is yet to be made available for 2020 and 2021.
But all states and territories recorded a moderate increase in undergraduate applications in 2020, except the ACT (down by 8.6%) and Victoria (down by 5.9%).
Tasmania, largely untouched by lockdowns, recorded the largest increase in applications, with a 26.3% rise.
The chief executive of the Group of Eight (Go8) association of leading Australian universities, Vicki Thomson, says enrolments at its member institutions have remained strong despite international and domestic border closures, but things could change.
The total number of international students enrolled in the higher education sector in the first half of 2021 fell by 12.5% compared to the same time last year.
Commencements in the higher education sector decreased by 23%.
“International student enrolments remain stronger than expected for the Go8, especially in the area of postgraduate research,” Thomson says.
“There is, however, a risk that long-term border closures will impact enrolments in 2022 and 2023 as competitor markets in the US, UK and Canada offer face-to-face education and incentives to attract international students.”
The Universities Australia chief executive, Catriona Jackson, says although it’s too early to assess the effect of the pandemic on enrolments, it’s been clear for some time that Australian students are starting university later.
“Fewer than half of Australian students starting a bachelor’s degree are admitted on the basis of their secondary education alone,” she says.
At the same time, the share of mature-aged undergraduate students aged 30 and over has increased, from 12.6% in 2008 to 13.9% in 2019.
Lily Williams, a year 12 student at St Aloysius College in Adelaide, isn’t rushing to study.
Bar a seven-day lockdown at the beginning of school holidays, life has been relatively normal in South Australia, and her schooling has only been dampened by mandatory mask-wearing.
But Covid has still played a part in decision making, with outbreaks interstate provoking her peers to rethink travelling across borders or internationally for study.
“I know a few people who were considering Canberra as an option,” Lily says, “but it’s now a consideration for them whether they want to risk being locked down and if they can get back home.”
According to Australia’s national Covid plan, which is subject to change if required, when 80% vaccination targets are reached, lockdowns will only be necessary in “highly targeted” situations, and all travel restrictions will be lifted for the vaccinated.
But with zero-Covid states warning hard borders may have to remain in place months after national targets are met, Lily and her peers have watched Delta outbreaks interstate with trepidation.
For those who’ve already made the leap to tertiary education, pre-pandemic university life feels like a distant prospect.
Jenna Crane, completing her first year of a Bachelor of Nutritional Science degree at Melbourne’s Deakin University, needs to “go back in [her] memory” to recall the last time she was on campus.
Apart from a stint at the end of her first trimester and beginning of her second, her course has been taught entirely remotely.
O Week – usually the defining marker of a student’s first social relationships and connections – went ahead almost entirely online via Zoom.
“It was nothing compared to what it would have been,” Jenna says.
“And during classes, everyone has their cameras off, there’s group chats but you can’t really form the same connection.”
Jenna has had a couple of friends drop out over struggles with the heavy workload from home, but doesn’t see an alternative to persevering.
“If you take a gap year, you’re just going to be at home,” she says.